Dissent: The highest form of patriotism

My wife, Gena, and I wish to convey our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the Capitol police officer and other lives lost in the U.S. Capitol last week. Regardless of where you land in your politics, it is profoundly heart-wrenching these Americans died. We join the majority of Americans across our land in praying for a better and more united way forward for all of us.

Over the last few years, both those on the left and right have protested in big ways. They have also justified their legal and illegal actions, from peaceful protests to breaking into and seizing buildings, destroying private property and even causing physical harm.

Historian David Barton wrote earlier in the year: “Peaceful protesters have marched around the country to demand justice. However, in the midst of justified outrage some people have themselves begun committing unjustifiable acts, assaulting and murdering police officers, burning down buildings, mercilessly beating people, and destroying their fellow citizens’ property. Out of town activists and professional agitators have poured into metropolitan centers and led rioters to destroy businesses, housing units, and even churches.”

But are these the type of “peaceful protests” our Founding Fathers or framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind when they secured our rights to “peaceably assemble” and dissent in the First Amendment?

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

At its core, the First Amendment clearly prohibits Congress from making any law hindering the right of the people to peaceably assemble for any of myriad of reasons, including protests. However, the framers drew a line between peaceful protests and armed insurrections. Remember, it was many of the same founders who established both the First Amendment and a decade later also enacted the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime for American citizens to “print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the government.

I’m not ignorant of how some protests turned violent in the formative years of our republic leading up to the Revolutionary War. But both sides of the aisle today must be careful not to cite historical precedent in revolts like the Boston Tea Party to justify violence. According to historian Barton again, that resistance event “was 100% peaceful with no looting, rioting, injury, or destruction of person or private property.” (The same can basically be said of patriot resistance in 1765 against the Stamp Act and in 1767 against the Townshend Acts.)

Indeed, America had a violent birth, but the framers established and wanted to grow a peaceful republic while simultaneously securing freedoms of religion, speech, press and even grievance assemblies. They intentionally used the term “peaceably” because they also were familiar with angry, violent mobs. That is why Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said of the U.S. Capitol riot this last week, “It’s the Founding Fathers’ worst fear.” Mob rule is not the path to liberty.

Bottom line, as Barton concluded, “Peaceful protests are protected by the Bill of Rights, but violent riots which destroy, loot, and victimize are antithetical to the American idea. The comparison of the violent riots to the Boston Tea Party is wildly unfounded and demonstrates that Americans should study their history before they try to weaponize it.”

If you didn’t know, the freedom to protest or assemble peaceably had its background in the First Continental Congress and the grievances the American people had against King George III and Parliament. In its document called, “Declaration and Resolves” (Oct. 14, 1774), the Congress stated that the people “have a right to peaceably assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the king” (something they were not allowed to do in the motherland).

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” He also said, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.”

Even a young 16-year-old Franklin, in his Dogwood Papers, written in 1722, stated wisdom: “In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech; a thing terrible to public traitors.”

Alexander Hamilton, in People v. Croswell, Feb. 13, 1804, stated during the presidential administration of Thomas Jefferson: “The liberty of the press consists, in my idea, in publishing the truth, from good motives and for justifiable ends, though it reflect on the government, on magistrates, or individuals. If it be not allowed, it excludes the privilege of canvassing men, and our rulers. It is in vain to say, you may canvass measures. This is impossible without the right of looking to men.”

George Washington, in his address to the officers of the army, March 15, 1783, couldn’t have stated it better: “For if men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”

Washington would have concurred that freedom of speech included dissent even against “the king” or president, as long as it didn’t lead to his demise. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t a Founding Father but his words about criticizing even presidents are pretty powerful, especially since he was one: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.”

My point is that our founders secured our rights in the First Amendment for even vehement dissent and the use of what many today would call hate speech, which the U.S. Supreme court again affirmed just a few years ago. But our founders did not condone or endorse violent or destructive dissent, until of course they realized that separation and war with the Crown was the only way forward and inevitable – a sentiment Thomas Jefferson even echoed for the preservation of our own republic in latter half of the Declaration of Independence.

Many attribute the following statement to Thomas Jefferson: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” But even his Monticello estate has concluded that: “To date we have found no evidence that he said or wrote this.”

Jefferson may not have literally said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” but I think it’s fair to say that he and the other founders believed it was indeed a high form of patriotism. I do, too. In my opinion, it captures the essence of the First Amendment.

We do know that Jefferson was very clear when he wrote in a 1787 letter to James Madison: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Nevertheless, even Jefferson would have agreed that passionate patriotism or rebellion doesn’t condone or warrant riots (violent public disorder), defaming government statues, destroying or stealing property or threatening and harming others. When we trample fellow citizens and their same constitutional rights, we cross the line ourselves. “Peaceful protests” shouldn’t morph into pandemonium protests.

The truth is, modern progressivism and our politically correct culture have obliterated the true meaning of the First Amendment. We need to go back to our founders’ original intent if we are to move forward and heal the divisions across our land. Censorship and suppressing free speech (whether in the workplace, public schools or on social media platforms) is un-American and unconstitutional – but so is justifying destructive or violent rebellion on the basis of patriotism, the U.S. Constitution or America’s founders’ precedent.

America needs to resurrect the real First Amendment, as I did in my New York Times bestseller “Black Belt Patriotism.” And in so doing, we need to reconsider and reeducate others on what the term “peaceably” meant to our founders and should also mean to us. We must retrain our younger generations on the freedoms in the First Amendment and how to agree to disagree agreeably. So many today are on the wrong track, and the unpatriotic messages about America they receive in public schools aren’t helping.

Katie Gorka, who serves as director of the Feulner Institute’s Center for Civil Society and the American Dialogue, wrote a great column in November that stated: “Many young Americans seem to have a growing disdain for our country. According to a Gallup poll, pride in our nation has declined, especially among young adults. Young adults are taking to the streets and not merely protesting but wreaking havoc, rioting and looting, tearing down statues, and shutting down anyone who doesn’t share their perspective.”

Our present hostile and divided culture also exacerbates a bastardization of our First Amendment rights. We live in an age where accusation is en vogue. We vomit vitriol on social media. We point fingers in judgment without any conviction of decency, civility or love. Instead of loving people and using things, we love things and use people. We’ve abandoned loving our neighbors for being indifferent. We’ve swapped the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) for “He who has the gold, rules.” And if we’re really honest, even the models too many parents and grandparents set for their posterity demonstrates raged patriotism, gossip, slander and unforgiveness.

And what about politicians? Gone are the days when strong leaders and politically differing personalities like 1980s’ Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were friends and reached across the aisle in order to lead our country. Today’s politics are all about pitching polarities, demonizing your opposition, and casting blame to justify one’s own divisiveness, rage and inability to bridge gaps. What we need like never before are leaders at the state and federal level like those decades ago who knew how to agree to disagree agreeably, confronted tough challenges together and advanced our nation forward with American exceptionalism despite their differences.

In resurrecting, reeducating and celebrating our First Amendment rights, I would encourage all Americans to again honor Religious Freedom Day this week on Saturday, Jan. 16 – the anniversary date of the 1786 passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. The goal of ReligiousFreedomDay.com is to promote and protect students’ religious expression rights by informing educators, parents and students about these liberties.

Let me conclude with having you ponder a 250-year-old question. On Sept. 17, 1787, while leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what type of government the delegates had produced: a republic or a monarchy? He allegedly said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The question still stands.

(For more great perspectives on patriotism and our founders, I would encourage you listen daily to Wallbuilders Live broadcasts with Rick Green and David & Tim Barton, especially last week’s broadcast on “What Happened at the Capitol.” Encourage others also to listen to their inspiring and educational “Constitution Alive” series. Last, check out their excellent interview with Jim Garlow on “The Theology of Protests.”)

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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