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The shining light of our national proposition

The elegant expressions of John Courtney Murray and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. celebrate our American identity.

July 04, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote a famous letter to his wife, Abigail, back in Massachusetts.

He predicted that America's Independence Day would "be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival." Adams felt it "ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance. ... It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

And so it has been, which is as it ought to be. It's also a good day to refresh our memories about the words that have informed our notion of our American identity, because we are, after all, uniquely the people of an idea rather than a nation founded like others on blood and soil.

One of the best and most elegant expressions of this can be found in John Courtney Murray's epochal 1960 reflection on American pluralism and law, "We Hold These Truths." Murray, a Jesuit theologian, begins by noting Abraham Lincoln's assertion in the Gettysburg Address that our nation was "dedicated to a proposition."

"I take it that Lincoln used the word with conceptual propriety," Murray wrote. "In philosophy a proposition is the statement of a truth to be demonstrated. In mathematics a proposition is at times the statement of an operation to be performed. Our Fathers dedicated the nation to a proposition in both senses. ... It is an affirmation and also an intention. It presents itself as a coherent structure of thought that lays claim to intellectual assent; it also presents itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success. Our Fathers asserted it and most ably argued it; they also undertook to 'work it out,' and they signally succeeded."

According to Murray, the "American Proposition" was not a finished thing, either as a doctrine or as a project, nor should its historical success ever be taken for granted. What's more, he said, whenever the proposition did attain any measure of success, that should be followed by "enlargement on penalty of decline."

One of 20th century America's singular accomplishments was the realization that enlargement of our national proposition was contingent on freedom of expression, which brings us to another of the struggle's classic texts -- the dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., joined by Justice Louis D. Brandeis -- to the Supreme Court's majority decision in Abrams vs. United States.

In that case, five young leftists were prosecuted and given lengthy prison sentences under the Espionage Act for throwing leaflets off a New York rooftop attacking President Wilson's decision to send U.S. troops into Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. The court affirmed their conviction.

Holmes' dissent was the first in the series of minority opinions that would fix his place in the pantheon of the American Proposition's heroic servants.

"Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition ..." Holmes wrote. "But men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

If one considers the moral arc that runs from theologian to jurist on this Independence Day, one of the things that comes most readily to mind was the scorn heaped by some on President Obama when he said that empathy was one of the qualities he sought in his first nominee to the Supreme Court. Holmes actually anticipated such controversies in one of the celebrated Lowell Lectures he gave at Harvard:

"The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience," he said. "The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy avowed or unconscious, even with the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men, have had a great deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics."

Somehow, thoughts like Murray's and Holmes' celebrate our national proposition with a light that exceeds all of John Adams' "bonfires and illuminations."


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