This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.
We should revisit again and again the stirring call during President Joe Biden’s inauguration to put the power and meaning of our First Amendment freedoms at center stage in the 21st century.
In past inaugural addresses, the anthems of a generation have been spoken by the incoming president: Think Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and even Abraham Lincoln’s call to the “better angels of our nature.” But not this time, with no insult to President Biden.
This year’s inspiration came from National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, reciting — no, inhabiting — her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” She later said it was only half-complete on Jan. 6 when the insurrectionist mob invaded the U.S. Capitol — and that the terrible moment “gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem.”
Gorman said she wanted to speak of challenges — the “evidence of discord and division” — of the moment, but also to express her view of what is past and her vision of what is ahead.
Intentional or not, she echoed and celebrated the exhilarating optimism and intentions of the nation’s founders in 1791 as the First Amendment was ratified to lead off the Bill of Rights.
In using only 45 words to define our core freedoms — perhaps “sketch” is a more apt descriptive — the early leaders of this nation set a course to leave to future generations the practice and effect of those rights so basic to a democracy.
In a nation born of social tumult and bloody revolution, there was no reason to expect debate, discussion and dissent would dissolve as this grand experiment in self-governance unfolded. Rather we were left with the self-remedy machine that is the First Amendment.
Perhaps only a poet could reconcile our flawed past with our soaring aspirations, recognizing that from the beginning we have been coarse, conflicted and often contradictory: Our champions of freedom included slaveowners. In working to form “a more perfect union,” we dissolved into a bloody Civil War, remain divided by racism’s great moral chasm — and most recently, watched in horror a fumbled attempt at sedition.
And yet, “we the people” again and again strive to reach consensus from contention, agreement from argument — all the while protected by the simply worded precept that declares we may dissent without being disloyal.
Gorman’s words put rhyme and lyric to the law:
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
….. And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
The freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition define what it means to be an American, and they have provided us with the engines of change to regularly refine, improve and expand that definition.
Again, in Gorman’s words:
(It’s) because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
Generations of Americans have used their freedoms — many times when other rights and benefits have been denied — to set their fellow citizens on a fairer, more just path. Gorman’s words reminded us of the founders’ belief that the freedoms of the First Amendment can give hope for a better life for us all — if we preserve, defend and use them.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left
With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
… For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.