The Right to Heaven — Reflections on the History of Rights in America
By Kenneth Weene
My maternal grandfather came to this country to seek his fortune and just as importantly to escape the Tsar’s army. His objection to service was not cowardice or conscientious objection; he just didn’t want to fight for a system that gave him no rights. “If I was nothing to him then why should the Tsar be something to me?” he explained as we walked from the apartment he and my grandmother shared to the small tobacco store which provided their living.
Years later Pa and I stood on another sidewalk. We were waiting for the parade. Ike was campaigning for the presidency and his motorcade was coming down Broadway—right in front of us!
Pa was ecstatic. To him Eisenhower was the greatest of heroes: Partly because my uncle, Pa’s only son, had survived his service in Europe and Pa, an atheist thankful for what he considered a miracle, attributed his son’s survival to Ike. Partly because as a Jew Pa saw the general as the savior of European Jewry, a strange stretch given the numbers dead and the number of camps liberated by Soviet soldiers. And partly, as was true for most Americans, because that decent man from Kansas had led us to victory against the Nazis.
“Always remember, Kenneth,” Pa’s voice deepened and cracked with age and tears, “it is a wonderful thing to be an American.”
He stiffened as Ike’s car passed, and I tried to stand at attention—the way our gym teacher always insisted.
When Ike had passed, Pa continued. “This is the only country in the world where people have rights.”
Even as a boy I knew he was exaggerating. I also knew that Pa believed what he was saying.
“Rights”: what a grand sounding word, but what does it mean?
Growing up just outside of Boston, I was immersed in American history, especially from the Revolution. Down the road were Lexington and Concord, Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill. This was where it had all begun. I dreamed of visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the National Archive in Washington, DC. In the Archive I would see it, the real document, the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” What a grandiloquent declaration. What a powerful foundation for any country.
When the Declaration of Independence was discussed in social studies classes, it was likened to the Magna Carta, another declaration of rights. Of course, that earlier document set forth rights not for the common man but for the nobility and spoke less of natural than riparian and hunting rights. The great work of 1776 admitted that all men were created equal and that we all have natural rights. It was the inherent state of humans to have those rights.
Fifteen years later, with the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the notion of individual rights was expanded and clarified. To so enshrine the rights of individuals was a heady event. That this was done while the world reeled from the chaos of the French Revolution made it a courageous one as well.
The rights added to the Constitution were not defined in the positive if general manner of the Declaration of Independence but in a more specific and real way. The rights found in the Bill of Rights are not freedoms to pursue vague goal such as obtaining property or pursuing happiness; they are freedoms from government intrusion, what I call permissive rights. The individual is to have freedom from the tyranny of government. For example, troops cannot be quartered in a person’s home; a right so basic to the framers’ thinking that it has its own amendment, the third. Nor can the government establish a religion; so people were free to worship or not as they saw fit, the first amendment.
By enumerating rights in this way, the Constitution was not promising life or happiness. It was merely promising liberty, liberty from government intrusion.
Of course, that promise was not universal. Sexual behavior was still under government sway. Certainly there was no right to love. Also, personal aspirations and wellbeing were none of the government’s concern; there was no right to education, healthcare, a job, or a home. In the new “democratic” model of society, the power of the lord and master was gone but so was his obligation to look after his tenants, serfs, or servants. The individual was on his own.
Even the Civil War, which was clearly about the right to freedom, was not fought to further the individual’s aspirations beyond enumerated rights and the right to vote. In the end, the Union did not give the emancipated slaves forty acres or a mule, only the chance to fend for themselves in a hostile and repressive land.
For the first half of American history, government had no obligation to help people, only to not stand in their way.
Then something changed. Today we talk about the right to education, the right to a social safety net, the right to healthcare, the right to sexual identity, and even the rights to housing and nutrition. As a liberal, I support the expansion of rights and the movement towards what I call aspirational rights. I cheered when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out to Ronald Reagan that for whatever rights we Americans might enjoy the citizens of the USSR had others, for example the right to a job and a place to live. In recent years I have cheered again as government-supported healthcare and gay marriage have become parts of the fabric or our society.
Of course, the use of government to support personal aspirations had been there, if unspoken, from the very beginning. The original European settlement of the North American Colonies had not been for the wellbeing of the individual settlers, many of who would have been imprisoned or executed if they had stayed in England, but for the enrichment of companies such as the London Company and individual grantees such as George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore. The wealth to be found in this “new land” was not for the settlers but for the mother country. The economic system under which this was to happen was called mercantilism.
One of the underlying goals of the American Revolution was an unarticulated aspirational right, the right to settle land and to have ones own freehold. That this right could only be exercised at the expense of the indigenous peoples was not a consideration to the settlers; it had, however, been a concern to the British government, which had restricted settlement of the lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. The first and only major act of the Confederation of States which was created during the Revolution and which continued until 1789 was opening that area to settlers. Support of settlers’ taking land particularly at the expense of original populations continued at least until April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Rush was staged.
Even though the government has from the Revolution onward supported the aspiration of land and resource ownership, this was always couched in terms of a “manifest destiny,” the settlement of “empty lands”, and of course the “taming of savages”.
For all my support of the rising tide of aspirational rights, I cannot help but wonder exactly when the American psyche took that turn, when we moved from expecting government to get out of our lives and started wanting it to help us live them. Was it during the Great Depression and the New Deal when FDR introduced the TVA and the right of every household to have electricity or when he introduced Social Security and the right of everyone to have a safe retirement? Perhaps it was after World War II, when our veterans received a GI bill that gave them a much-deserved leg up. Certainly such an emphasis on aspirational rights was well established by the Lyndon Johnson administration and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty. The fight for aspirational rights continues to this day, for example with the passage of the Affordable Health Care Law (Obamacare), the battle over gay marriage, and the ongoing issues of sexual equality in the military and prevention of sexual abuse, especially on campuses.
Even as American politics wrestled with aspirational rights, another notion of rights came to our consciousness. I call this new concept of rights a belief in impositional rights, by which I mean the right to impose one’s views on others. Of course, there is always potential conflict between one person’s rights and values and another’s. For example, my right to buy in every store or ride on any seat in a bus may conflict with the storekeeper’s right to serve only those he likes or the bus company to run their own business. In the conflict between rights—one which has consistently resulted in greater individual liberty for the general all of the people at the expense of those who would control their own individual property, business, and dealings—there is always the question of who is imposing on whom.
But lately there has been a real change. There are those who claim the right to impose their values at the expense of the inherent and permissive rights of others. Typically this claim of impositional rights is based on a religiously based values system. “My Bible trumps your humanistic values,” might be the battle cry of those who tout their impositional rights to limit contraception, abortion, marriage, education, …
When did the notion of rights turn from extending personal freedom to such imposition of values? I would suggest a most unlikely moment: the Eisenhower administration. The Cold War was in full swing, but what exactly was the great difference between the two competing giants, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.? Certainly there was an enormous difference between the economic systems, but could the average person relate to that difference? The typical thinking ran, “Big deal, so the Russians have a different system, but our economy is great and we have jobs, growth, our kids are happy, and life is good. What more can Americans want? Besides which, the Russians live lousy lives.”
Focusing American opinion on opposition to the Russians rather than coexistence was an important and immediate goal for Washington. How to get Americans to care?
“Religious freedom” became the rallying cry of the Eisenhower propagandists. Religious liberty was an easy way to differentiate our system from that of the “Godless Communists.” But the religious freedom that these propagandists were touting was not the permissive right enshrined in the first amendment and fought for so assiduously by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The right Americans have to not be forced to pray was not differentiable from the Communist position that people should give up on prayer and religion as a false and misleading belief system. It was the right to pray that mattered.
If the Communists said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” then capitalism must say, “Faith is the cornerstone of prosperity.” The propagandists’ position was, “it is our right to pray that is important, so pray we must.” Suddenly, God became our national treasure. “In God we trust” became our motto and appeared on our money. “One nation under God” became part of our pledge of allegiance. Implicit was the question: “If you aren’t religious, can you be a true American?”
Even as the ACLU fought to maintain our right to be agnostic, atheist, or something else, the Eisenhower administration was pursuing a redefinition of the first amendment freedom that changed the practice of religion into an impositional right. That change may seem small and it is certainly subtle, but it was significant because for the first time the conservative religious forces within the American system were recognizing something which they had never before acknowledged, that the goal of government could be pushed beyond supporting the right of the individual to religious freedom towards a national pursuit of faith.
It is only during the Eisenhower administration that a permissive right, to believe whatever one wished without government intrusion, was turned into an impositional right, to require belief in God because that belief was the foundation stone of America. This right to impose belief allowed the political right to redefine the public space from a religious perspective. Combating “Godless Communism” with a state of faith meant building a nation on Biblical principles and ideas.
It was by coincidence that I was at a brunch with Dwight David Eisenhower the morning Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It was at an International Student Association. As Ike spoke in his trademark convoluted sentences, I tried to understand what he was saying at a personal level. He spoke of the need to aspire, to make our lives count, to make our countries better. He mentioned how important it was for government to make our aspirations achievable; how it had been the goal of the war, as it was the goal of NATO, and how it had been the purpose of his administration to provide a framework for personal freedom and achievement.
At the time it seemed only platitudes, but today I realize that he was articulating a new philosophy of government based on aspirational rights. What he didn’t realize was the paradox of his own administration, that it had provided the groundwork for a new and different notion of American rights, one that involved not personal liberty but the imposition of values.
When he spoke that morning, Ike made it clear that it isn’t enough for government to stand back and let individuals achieve, it is a proper role of government to support its citizens as they reach for a higher and better life. Today we must restate those foundational natural rights: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and aspiration to accomplishment. More importantly, we must no longer think of government as providing a laissez faire environment but we must demand that government give each and every citizen the support necessary to reach for the heavens.
Sadly, that morning Ike failed to articulate that it isn’t the role of government to tell us what the heavens we seek represent.