On a visit last year to Maryland, I had the opportunity to revisit (or visit) some of the monuments around Washington, DC. While my seven-year-old happily snapped pictures to show her class, I read the inscriptions on the walls. Several, in the Jefferson and FDR Memorials, struck me as particularly apposite.
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval dated 12 July 1816, wrote:
I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Take that, SCOTUS! So much for “original intent”: the interpretation of our laws (and our standards) must be consistent with our time, not Jefferson’s. (Anybody want to argue that Jefferson couldn’t know the framers’ intent far better than anyone on today’s Supreme Court?)
For just one clear example, consider Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” All men? Our laws recognize (even if some of our people do not) that this includes not only white men, but women, too, and both genders in rainbow hues: in a word, all humankind. The delivery on that promise, though considerably advanced from two centuries ago, still has not been fulfilled: though all men are created equal, it is still only citizens who can claim the basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution — a situation that has, sadly, deteriorated substantially since 2001.
Moving around the Tidal Basin to the FDR Memorial, I found that the words of Franklin Roosevelt are as true today as they were seventy-odd years ago:
No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.
— Second Fireside Chat on Government and Modern Capitalism, September 30, 1934.
We might update this for today: underemployment is as bad as unemployment, surely; and the frenzy for “outsourcing” and shipping jobs overseas might be good for the corporate bottom line, but only if the displaced employees (and their counterparts at other companies) can still afford the products and services they once produced themselves.
I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.
— Fireside Chat on Economic Conditions, April 14, 1938
This is the essence of “good government,” isn’t it? Remembering, always, that you are a public servant and answerable to the people of the United States; too often, those in high office invert the relationship, believing instead that the people are answerable to them.