Red, White and Blue . . . A Work in Progress
Monticello was always a project for Thomas Jefferson. He continually redesigned and rebuilt it. A work in progress throughout his entire life, and with Jefferson being who he was, a founding father and the author of America’s national creed, the Declaration of Independence, Monticello symbolized another lifelong project of his, that being the United States of America itself. And from Jefferson’s time on, America has been a work in progress, a continuing construction of red, white, and blue. Trials, victories, and defeats have all added threads to the fabric of America’s stance as a country of resolve and debate.
The founding fathers knew this, for they drafted the Constitution in a way in which it was an open-ended document, where there would always be room for maneuver, compromise, and evolution that would ease the pain and add strength to America’s growth as “ the last best hope of Earth.”
While Abraham Lincoln was debating Stephen Douglas during their run for the Senate in 1858, he made a statement upon the issue of slavery, which was threatening to tear the country apart, “ The real issue in this controversy – the one pressing upon every mind – is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong . . . that is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle.”
Abortion or civil rights, taxes, or poverty, capital punishment, or free speech can replace the term slavery in Lincoln’s statement, and the meaning is still clear. America will always deal with these issues, past and new.
There will never be a finish line.
Never be a period at the end of the sentence.
Constant evolution and resolution.
The United States Supreme Court has demonstrated this fact time and again. In 1845, a slave named Dred Scott was suing for his freedom on the grounds he had been removed from a slave state and taken to the free state of Illinois and Wisconsin territory for years before being taken back to Missouri. The case, Dred Scott vs. Sandford, eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1856, the court not only ruled against Dred Scott, but also stated that black people were not represented as citizens in either the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. They were inferior to white people and nothing but property.
Of course, the Civil War changed that perspective, giving black people their freedom and stating that they were indeed represented in both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. However, the Supreme Court continued to pass rulings that contradicted these facts, such as Plessy vs. Ferguson, which stated in 1896 that black people were, “ separate but equal,” to white people. In short, the ruling made segregation legal in the United States. Black people were not allowed to eat in a restaurant or drink from a water fountain of a white person. Black people were banned from using restrooms, or riding at the front of a bus. They could not get jobs or equal pay like a white person could. They could not go to the same schools that white people could.
And yet, America is a country of evolution and resolution, and over the decades, the Supreme Court became more sympathetic and bold in its views towards black people. In 1954, the Court made that perspective very clear in its landmark ruling in the case, Brown vs. the Board of Education, in which it declared that it was unconstitutional for states to establish separate schools for white and black children. It did not end segregation altogether, but it was the opening shot in the Civil Rights Movement, which led to the end of the Jim Crow South and its persecution of black people through a consolidated effort. It also gave black people the rights they had fought for since the Civil War, and put them on the rightful level of free and equal citizens of the United States.
America was founded on the principle of freedom and self-government, and in that shadow, it is a country that has remained open-ended in its growth, so that something it believed was right at one time could be changed and decided differently at another. Slavery and civil rights and their relationship to the Supreme Court are shining examples of this type of design.
Heaven help us the day the Constitution trades its wings for shoes.