Here it is, Independence Day, the day we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 by the members of the second Continental Congress. That’s right, today is the United States’ birthday.
Today is the anniversary of our “founding fathers'” treason against King George of England. the Continental Congress wasn’t a governing body, and had no representative powers – some estimate that only a third of American colonists were supportive of a break with Britain. The war for our independence hadn’t even started yet. The United States didn’t come into being until several years later. The Articles of Confederation were written in 1777, but not ratified until 1781 – at which point the thirteen Independent States, in the same sense that Britain was a State, became the United States of America. It’s the Articles that gave the Continental Congress governing powers, granted that all the states ratified, unanimously, any actions they proscribed. This is the first time the nation is united under one government, embodied by the Articles. It’s this document that says for the first time
The Stile of this Confederacy shall be “The United States of America”
So, the Declaration of Independence is not an official document of the US Government, though it’s kept in the Archives alongside the Constitution (which wasn’t ratified until 1791, in December). So, you might say, the United States (as we know it now) didn’t come about until December 15, 1791. Why no fireworks in mid-december? People tend to forget the Articles of Confederation because they ultimately failed, and it was necessary to replace them with the Constitution – which is why that documents begins with the aim of forming “a more perfect Union”
The point of this history lesson is this: nobody can say that the Declaration of Independence is “unconstitutional” because, for one, it predated the Constitution’s ratification by some 15 years. It is, thus, not an official document of the US government.
Which is why nobody has raised a ruckus about amending it to remove the phrase “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator…” or the nonsense of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” on the grounds that it fails to separate Church and State.
Which brings me to the current fray about the Pledge of Allegiance. Until I started doing some research, I was under the impression that the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t officially recognized by the US Government, as it’s not legally binding to pledge one’s allegiance, and I seemed to think there was no way to force anyone into saying it. But lo and behold, here it is, in the US Code (Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 4).
The US Code, as it pertains to the flag, its display and use, etc, however, is not law, and not legally binding, unless you are in the military, but is a matter of etiquette. You can’t be arrested for failing to properly follow the ceremonial procedures for disposing of a worn flag.
The Pledge, as it originally read in 1892, didn’t mention God at all. Neither did it, though otherwise slightly altered, when it was first adopted into the Flag Code in 1942. An interesting note, originally the author of the Pledge – Francis Bellamy – believed one should honor the flag by placing the right hand on the chest, palm downward, then extending the hand toward the flag in salute. this was changed when the Nazis started Heiling in a similar fashion.
As early as 1943, just one year after being adopted into the Code, the Supreme Court ruled that school children could not be forced to recite it. The objection back then?
it wasn’t that the Pledge said anything of God – that wasn’t added until the Knights of Columbus lobbied for it as a moral defense against creeping atheist Communism in 1954, inspired, supposedly, by the phrase “this nation under God” in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which nobody’s ever protested…). Here’s what the Court had to say in 1943:
We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.
We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.
in other words, even schoolchildren have the right to free speech, and to choose what they pledge and salute. a local government – school board, state, etc – doesn’t have the power to supercede the First Amendment, no matter how patriotic.
so, here we are. the Supreme Court has already said that we can’t be forced to say the Pledge, and now we’re at the point where they are going to have to rule again on its contents – if the California Court or the 9the Circuit isn’t doesn’t have the final say, and in the question of declaring anything unconstitutional, I doubt it.
My personal feelings on the matter, which are rather unpopular (go figure) are that we should give the whole matter a rest. Why not take the Pledge out of the Code entirely – that’ll stop the debate. Yeah, right. In showing your allegiance to your country, there are better and more genuine ways to display your patriotism and national pride.
Which brings us back to the question of the current debate. What’s the point of all this discussion and hullabaloo? Oh yes. The government’s 50-year-old tacit recognition of a supreme being in an official government document that isn’t actually an enforceable law. A phrase which nobody can be forced to say, or, for that matter, be kept from saying if they feel like it.