Thursday brings our annual celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in that storied year, 1776. The defiant document was preceded by Americans commanded by George Washington chasing their British masters out of Boston and followed by a string of disasters that nearly ended the war in its first months.
The seven years that followed the signing of the Declaration are among the most remarkable in the early history of representative democracy. It comes as a surprise that freshman U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy has revealed himself as an enemy of those freedoms by proposing a sweeping amendment to the Constitution that would narrow — to the point of extinguishing them — the basic rights that Americans enjoy and that have inspired much of the world.
Consider Murphy's transgression in light of the sacrifices Americans made and the horrors they endured to defeat the British and secure their own liberty. In August 1776, the largest armada anyone could remember seeing arrived in New York. The ships carried 32,000 troops, who descended on the 10,000 soldiers of the Colonial Army and slaughtered those who could not flee. Even some of the British were astounded at the brutality of their cohorts who used their bayonets to impale surrendering Americans on trees, according to Ron Chernow's magnificent biography of Washington.
Washington, after several narrow escapes, retreated to Pennsylvania, where he contrived a plan to save the failing American Revolution. On Christmas night, the Virginian led his army across the icy Delaware River, marched it through the night in a raging snowstorm, and defeated the Hessian garrison in Trenton. He thwarted a British counterattack and a week later captured Princeton, before heading to the safety of Morristown for the rest of the winter.
Six years of advances and reversals of fortune followed. From the distance of 237 years of modernity, it is difficult to understand the full measure of the privations they endured.
We are their heirs and beneficiaries, the luckiest people on earth. The American Revolution continued several years later when the victorious states convened the Constitutional Convention. It was, like this one, an age of many fractious opinions.
The remarkable nature of our Constitution was in full display last week as the Supreme Court announced a series of notable decisions. The most prominent was the striking down a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
Our Constitution, with some noxious exceptions, has been a vessel for expanding rights and the blessings of freedom. Murphy dissents from that rich history. He has launched an assault on the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, religion and the press. Every sensate citizen should take offense.
The amendment introduced by Murphy and his colleague, Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, would limit the Constitution's rights and protection to "people." The amendment is a reaction to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision that found that free speech protections of the Constitution apply to corporations, labor unions and other entities. Free speech, the court properly ruled, applies not only to entities that own media properties.
Murphy's proposed amendment would change the nature of life in America. It would restrict rights that promote and protect our liberties. He would strip protections and rights from organizations as far-flung as the American Civil Liberties Union, National Rifle Association, Sierra Club, Omaha Humane Society, and your house of worship.
It would strip rights of newspapers across the spectrum from The New York Times and The Hartford Courant on the left to The Boston Herald and The New York Post on the right. Pity both National Public Radio and Fox News if Murphy and Tester prevail.
The amendment would open a wide path for the government to engage in surveillance and the collection of information without some of the safeguards that are even now under siege.
Murphy does not possess a serious mind, but he holds a powerful position. That he is using it in his first year in the Senate to slash your rights ought to alarm you, wherever you fall on our broad spectrum of beliefs.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun