By Malcolm F. Baldwin
Our elected leaders frequently express thanks for the “blessings of liberty,” reminding us of the importance of adhering to our founding fathers’ “original intent” as expressed in the Constitution. But what, exactly, is “liberty,” and what guidance would the founders offer us in facing today’s complex issues?
Within only a few years of independence from Britain and governed by the separate and diverse authorities of the sovereign states under the Articles of Confederation, Virginia’s James Madison and George Washington (among others) expressed grave concern – especially after an uprising in Massachusetts known as Shay’s Rebellion — that the decentralized powers of the Confederation lacked coherence in economic matters and the authority to quell unrest. And so they sought to spur the development of a national government that would supersede the powers of each state in key areas, while maintaining state authority in others.
We hear a lot these days from our state leaders about “the Virginia way,” a concept not well defined that seems in practice to rely mainly on private back-room debate and deal-making among politicians as the path to decision-making on complex 21st-century issues and an era of open government never envisioned by the founders.
Perhaps Madison should be credited with the first expression of a “Virginia way” when he came to the Constitutional convention with his “Virginia Plan” that might surprise today’s state legislators: It recommended giving the federal government the power to veto any state law, and to appoint state governors – both positions well beyond what was eventually written into the Constitution. The state militias – the only military forces that existed in the 1780s after Congress disbanded Washington’s Revolutionary Army – were to be controlled by the national government. (These were, of course, the citizen militias that were later referred to in the Second Amendment as the basis for the right to bear arms.) Liberty – to Madison, Washington and the signers of the Constitution – meant measured restraints upon discordant states, their fractured financial systems, citizen rebellion and restrictions on interstate trade and commerce. Enacted after much debate and discord, the Constitution embodied compromise on many issues and failed to resolve others – including slavery – leading to ongoing struggles and the need for multiple later amendments.
Today, many vocal advocates of protecting liberty and adhering to the “original intent” of the constitutional framers invoke the views of one Virginian who declined to attend the Constitutional Convention: Patrick Henry. He is now famous mainly for “Give me liberty or give me death!” – a cry aimed specifically at freedom from the yoke of King George III. As a former governor of Virginia in 1787, Henry saw the Constitutional Convention as a dangerous step toward establishment of an American monarchy, and in 1789 he argued against ratification of the Constitution. But later he participated in drafting the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights, and after the French Revolution he came to fear unfettered mob rule and favored John Adams and the Federalist Party against what he considered to be the dangerous states-rights resolutions of Kentucky and Virginia during the Washington administration. One wonders how many Patrick Henry devotees are aware of this interesting evolution of his positions.
What does this history mean for Virginia today as constitutional debates continue amidst pious declarations about liberty? Clearly, concepts of liberty have expanded. We at last freed the slaves with the 13th amendment, and by enacting the 14th amendment guaranteed all citizens protection from state as well as federal denial of the rights of life, liberty, property without due process and equal protection. Much later, we granted women the right to vote. Finally, with several Supreme Court cases and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, we began to make real the rights of African Americans that for a century after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation had been barred in the South and more subtly discouraged in the North.
Today, debates about “liberty” continue to incite passions on both the left and the right over such wide-ranging issues as election finance and voting rights, health care, education, taxation, guns, environmental protection, public works, marriage equality, reproductive rights and religious expression. These issues, largely unforeseeable to our founders, evolved amid expanding knowledge, technological change, globalization and vastly increased population diversity. Addressing them requires thoughtful political leaders to engage in principled and respectful discussion of tough and complex issues, not just vague expressions of support for abstract notions of “liberty.”
In Virginia a new legislative session will soon begin, with expanding Medicaid near the top of the governor’s legislative agenda. Unlike 28 states, including eight states with Republican governors (and three more considering it), in Virginia our 33rd District Delegate David LaRock and his Republican colleagues have thus far voted against allowing 400,000 uninsured citizens the benefits of health insurance that would be largely paid for by the federal government. (In most countries – including many with far less liberty and prosperity than ours – access to basic health care is considered a fundamental human right and a public function.) Parsimonious support for public schools and Delegate LaRock’s proposed tax credits for home and private schooling families would diminish state funds available for public education. How “liberated” do daily commuters feel when our Delegate tries to reduce funding for public transportation? (Will we be visited this year once again by that big pig Mr. LaRock drove around to illustrate his opposition to Metro?) And did his support for that notorious requirement for medically unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds further the liberty of our women?
Let’s put real meaning into our regard for liberty through concrete action grounded in the human values that our founders so ably began to advance more than two centuries ago. That, surely, is the “Virginia way” we should all endorse.