Faith and Redemption, Not Just Sympathy

In yesterday’s New York Times, historian Jill Lepore recalled the lives of Benjamin Franklin and his sister, Jane Mecom.  As Lepore explains, their “lives tell an 18th-century tale of two Americas” in which Franklin prevailed against poverty and ignorance while his sister did not.  Jane never attended school.  She married at 15, bearing 12 children (11 died) and struggled all of her life.  Jane could not keep her family out of debtors’ prisons, the almshouse, and asylums.  By contrast, Ben attended school as Massachusetts law required (though only for two years).  After running away from home at 17, Ben achieved far more than his candle-maker father could have imagined.  According to Lepore, the “story of Jane Mecom is a reminder that, especially for women, escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families.”  In 1789, when Jane was 77, Boston for the first time allowed girls to attend public school.  The fertility rate began to fall.  Lepore writes that: “The American Revolution made possible a new world, a world of fewer obstacles, a world with a promise of equality.  That required — and still requires — sympathy.”

Lepore’s piece brings to mind Jack M. Balkin’s imaginative and exciting new book Constitutional Redemption: Political Faith in an Unjust World. (Forgive me as I’m going to cherry pick from the book here; more soon about the book from CoOp).  In chapter two, Balkin tells a story about our Constitution to help us appreciate who we are as a political community, what values we stand for, and what commitments we have to fulfill.  He notes:

“What is the point of constitutional government in the United States of America?  It is the eventual redemption in history of the principles of our founding document.  I do not mean the written Constitution of 1787.  I mean the Declaration of Independence of 1776.  American constitutionalism is and must be a commitment to the promises the Declaration makes about our future as a people.  Our country sprang forth from a revolution in political and social structure.  The Declaration explains that point of that revolution, and hence the point of our constitutional enterprise.”

As Balkin describes, the Declaration promises that “all people are created equal” and enjoy inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It instantiates an ideal of social equality and equal liberty.  Yet, as Balkin notes, those promises have yet to be fulfilled: many still live under the yoke of inequality; inalienable rights are alienated every day by the rich and powerful; people live under unjust laws and unjust social conditions to which they have never consented.  Nonetheless, to “declare that these things are true is to make a promise and a prophecy.  The Declaration makes a promise to ourselves and to future generations that someday what we declare to be true will be true.  It makes a prophecy that someday the promises we make will be redeemed; if not by us, then by those who come after us.”  The Declaration is a “prophecy of redemption, that someday ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill laid low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain.'”  Thus, to “understand the meaning of the Constitution, we must understand the promises that we made to ourselves in our Declaration.”

Balkin explains that to understand those promises, we must understand that we are the children of the American revolution, which was not only a political revolution but also a social revolution that rejected social hierarchy.   Balkin underscores that the revolutionaries’ demand for social equality was an ideal, a struggle that “continues, in ever new forms and guises, to this very day.”  In this way, Lepore’s call for sympathy to achieve social equality falls short — as Balkin’s book highlights, we need faith.  We need to continue cultivating a democratic culture that “understand[s] the forms of unjust social hierarchy that exist in our world” and challenges law and society’s “attempts to reproduce unjust structures in society.”

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3 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    I think it’s unfair to say that Lepore “falls short.” Keep in mind that her’s is a short op-ed, too limiting, unlike Jack’s book, to extend beyond Lepore’s “response” to Rep. Paul Ryan’s “The Path to Prosperity” and his “nod” to Ben Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth” with the example of Ben’s sister.

    I look forward to reading Jack’s book. Since the days of the Declaration, it seems that after two steps forward towards its goal, there is one step back, which suggests that the goal may never be fully achieved, but may lead – with the Constitution – to a more perfect union, despite Rep. Ryan.

  2. Joe says:

    Lepore’s short book, “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History” also cites her story.

  3. “As Balkin describes, the Declaration promises that “all people are created equal” and enjoy inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It instantiates an ideal of social equality and equal liberty.”

    I haven’t read the book. But does he point out that the Declaration’s phrase there really didn’t mean back then, what we read it now, in terms of social equality? It’s much better translated into modern terms as “There’s no divine right of kings, no person is intrinsically picked by God to be a sovereign”.

    After all, many of the signers had slaves.