Its preamble plainly declares the first purpose of our Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union.” As we home in on the 244th anniversary of our country’s Declaration of Independence, we are vividly reminded that the everlasting and never-ending work to produce that more perfect union continues.
The United States’ greatness has always been rooted in the understanding that, although not attainable, perfection must endlessly be sought by a nation truly committed to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. As the drafters of the Constitution fully understood, perfection is not a condition to which a return is possible; it is instead the goal that a genuinely great country ceaselessly strives to achieve.
It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent pairing of words — “more perfect” — to express this notion of an endless civic crusade constantly aimed at producing a better nation. Webster defines “perfect” as meaning “being entirely without fault or defect.” If something is entirely without fault or defect, how can it be “more” faultless or defect free? Technically speaking, the word “perfect” is ultimately definitive in and of itself and the adjective “more” ought to be just a meaningless extra word. But that additional single syllable — “more” — powerfully clarifies the ongoing nature of the commitment that we always, always must be seeking a better union.
The Civil War and the 13th (ratified in 1865), 14th (ratified in 1868), and 15th (ratified in 1870) amendments to the Constitution ended slavery and extended voting rights to former slaves. In 1920, the 19th Amendment extended voting rights to women, and in 1971, the 26th Amendment did the same for 18-year-olds. Civil rights advocates prompted legislation in the 1960s that outlawed discrimination based on race and sex. This list just scratches the surface of progress that has been made toward that more perfect union Americans seek.
Today we are again intensely confronted with the ever-present turmoil that is part and parcel of this land’s tragic history associated with race relations. Beginning in the 15th century, Europeans confronted and over the course of four centuries conquered those races native to North America. About 400 years ago, Africans were first brought here as slave labor. Until the Civil War, slavery persisted. Legally enforced racial discrimination existed here until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and racial discrimination continues to this day. On May 25, 2020, a black American named George Floyd was asphyxiated in Minneapolis as a result of a police officer’s pressing his knee on the back of Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as he lay handcuffed and face down on the pavement, pleading that he could not breathe. Over the past weekend, the president of the United States retweeted a video of one of his supporters shouting “white power.”
When we go up a staircase, we do not pause to chop away the treads below that we have just traversed. Those lower steps are part of the foundation for the stairs we stand on and the higher ones we are headed toward. We would not be where we are on the staircase without the bottom steps, and we would be unable to reach the top if those bottom steps were not there. Certainly, on our way up, we remove items that have been left on a stair that may cause those coming after us to trip or fall. While they are not the ultimate place we want be, those lower steps are an indispensable part of our getting there. Still, anyone who just stops on a stair, or insists on going down, only gets in the way of those heading up.
Our country has made progress. Our country has far to go. Anyone content to stop progress where we are only obstructs those who want to keep moving forward. Every step in the wrong direction only lengthens the ultimate path ahead.
As we celebrate independence on this July 4, let each of us genuinely think about how close our country is to meeting her promises to Americans across genders, races, ages, sexual orientation, countries of origin, religions; let us thoughtfully consider where our country has been, where our country is, where we want our country to go, and what each of us can do on our nation’s path.
This timeless effort to produce “a more perfect union” continues, and it progresses best when we all do our parts.