Vital assumptions were made by America’s Founders. Three relate to the First Amendment, which guarantees “free speech” – to help correct bad speech, “freedom of worship” – to help preserve moral fiber, and “freedom of press” – to check government. All three are under intense pressure.
Start in reverse – with freedom of press. Thomas Jefferson famously intoned, “Our freedom depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Unspoken was Jefferson’s assumption that a free press would keep a rogue, unruly, or overreaching government in check.
While we still revere a free press, what is much of the press today, if not an arm of the government? This would rile Jefferson and worry him. He was no fan of those in the press who regularly savaged him when he became the nation’s third president. But he still knew the government required a check.
The three branches – especially a Congress and White House controlled by different parties – would partially check each other, and the Supreme Court (which checked Jefferson) would if above politics. But that was not enough.
Jefferson knew that government could over-grow, a fear he harbored all his life, and could become oppressive if too large, corrupt, concentrated, and unaccountable. One check on that was honest elections, another the free press.
Putting aside trust in the election process, the press was – to Jefferson – the big check on government. But the reason he vested trust in the press – and would be royally irked now – is that he assumed those in the press would always value a smaller, less intrusive, more freedom-focused government.
What he would spin at today is a press – media and social media – that seems ideologically content, if not openly supportive of, the very concentrated power that Jefferson – and the Revolutionary generation – spent their entire lives fighting against!
What would stun Jefferson and his contemporaries – is the way in which the American press has become aligned with big government, too often aligned against independent thought and individual liberties.
He would have none of that, might now say the press is of two sorts, one check, one is complicit. His assumption that all the press is rightly critical of government and of concentrated power is out.
Second faltering assumption? That freedom of worship – by itself – would keep the electorate on solid moral ground, and thus the Republic was governed by moral leaders who got to power on the vote of moral voters.
While more than two-thirds of the country is still adhering to tenets of faith, a moral compass much has changed. Promotors of everything from atheism and communism to irreverence and indifference, many parts of the popular culture – and a great many in politics – are everywhere.
The Founders, especially Washington, Madison, and those who shaped the First Amendment – believed that a moral America would long lead, self-correct, and stay on course. We have done that for more than two centuries.
But today, forces are at work that suggests freedom of worship itself, will not assure a moral electorate or leadership. Just as a free press – to be effective in checking government – must be consistently questioning the government, so freedom to worship must be reinforced by moral teaching – conscious and consistent education in the real values that have long made America a force for good.
As Alex de Tocqueville noted, laconically – America is great because America is good; if America ever ceases to be good, she will no longer be great. That is a lesson the Founders took to heart; we must,
Third, the most essential assumption – the one behind free speech – is that Americans would be able, always and forever – to correct the unpredictable failings and false starts of their day and time through the free exchange of ideas and freedom of speech.
What does free speech require for any two people, group, town, city, state, nation, or society to be real – to fulfill the promise of self-correction and thus preservation of the Republic? We could use different words to say the same thing – but respect for the exchange of honest views, no matter how wild.
In short, if we do not continue to believe in the “social institution” of conversation, the open exchange of views which can often twist, turn, conflict, offend, distend, and invite verbal opposition, we will lose the ability to distill difference to the point of truth, self-correct, and survive.
This may be the nub of the whole thing since neither press nor worship survives either if we do not consciously begin to respect, admire, preserve, and self-correct through the art of honest conversation.
If words are not permitted, certain people, positions, and opinions are canceled, then the entire idea of a healthy, honest conversation goes away. Intimidation, fear, self-censorship, and default to the silence of violence becomes inevitable. That is fatal.
Why fatal? Because the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, no matter how many times repeated in the service of political this or that, is only real if words can be freely exchanged if the art of conversation is preserved, practiced, and appreciated by all.
So, we all like to talk about the Bill of Rights, or at least we are grateful it exists, but to make it real, we need to do more than repeat words of the text. We have to understand and make real vital assumptions that lie behind the guarantees—just a thought for today – and for tomorrow.
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