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Celebrating, Questioning

This Independence Day weekend, we Americans celebrate and renew our commitment to the values set forth in 1776 by leaders who felt it was important to explain why our ancestors no longer wanted to live under British rule.

Why? Read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It is a clear explanation of Americans’ insistence on the rights of individuals:

“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 …”

The Declaration goes on in great detail to list British government violations of the rights of individuals. Note that numerous infringements were justified by the British government by claims they were necessary to protect the public. Consider also that among the cited actions by king and Parliament were some limiting the colonists’ economic freedoms.

It is worth asking ourselves this weekend whether our nation’s founders, if alive today, would believe that we have lived up to the insistence on individual liberty set forth in the Declaration. If they were writing it today, would their list of objections to government behavior include some of the steps our governments, state and federal, have taken in response to the COVID-19 epidemic?

As they demonstrated during the Revolutionary War, the founders were not insensitive to the necessity of curtailing some freedoms during times of genuine emergency. Our history shows that all too often, the severity of such curbs was out of proportion to necessity.

Are we just now emerging from such a period?

Time will tell ­– it must, through careful examination of why government officials took the epidemic-related actions they did ­– whether overreach has occurred.

Already, we have evidence that some government officials have been sensitive to individual liberties. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s course of action is one example. In easing epidemic-related restrictions late in May, DeWine said stores could reopen, but that customers had to wear face masks. Within hours, in the face of public outcry, he admitted he had gone too far. Shoppers were urged to don the masks, but not mandated to do so.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency on March 16, but waited a week to issue a stay-at-home order. It contained multiple exemptions governors of many other states refused to allow.

Still, even in our states, did government go too far? Would the nation’s founders, knowing what our governors knew and when they knew it, have thought the COVID-19 response was acceptable?

How would Benjamin Franklin, who in 1755 warned that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” feel about the epidemic-related emergency orders?

Would he and other founders decide that we Americans in 2020 are upholding the values we celebrate this weekend — or have abandoned them?

That is a real question, not a rhetorical device. But it is one that this Independence Day weekend — and in view of other threats to our freedoms, not just those involving the coronavirus outbreak — Americans should be asking. It comes down simply to this: What do we mean by “unalienable rights?”

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