Two imposing murals hold prominence in the darkened rotunda of the National Archives building in Washington, DC. “The Declaration” imagines the moment the Declaration of Independence is presented to the Continental Congress. Flanked by many of the founding fathers and soon to be signers, the document is presented to John Hancock by Thomas Jefferson. “The Constitution” similarly contemplates the moment the constitution is conferred to George Washington by James Madison. Each a seminal moment in our nation’s history.
As with any complex piece of art, one could spend hours studying the details. Analyzing the placement of each character. Interpreting what the artist, Barry Faulkner, was trying to convey by open palms, versus closed fists. Why some subjects of the pieces stood with backs turned while others held documents, or swords, or walking canes? Why were some distanced from the proceedings, conversing in their own small groups, while others appear more attentive? Or is the viewer reading more into the piece than was ever intended by the artist?
Each of the fourteen feet high and nearly thirty-eight feet wide pieces hang above much smaller, yet more precious, and more frequently interpreted parchments, the original documents of our founding. The overriding principle is that of a country founded and perpetually governed on liberty, freedom, and law. For mankind, there is no better system to live within nor more difficult to administer.
The global pandemic, albeit with a finer point, is the latest emergency to illustrate this enduring conflict. Now comes the hard part. The part that has been difficult to reconcile since the signing of our founding documents. In this case, how do you maintain freedoms while ensuring the public health? Both responsibilities of government.
Much is being said today about the need for government to seize control, close non-essential commerce, and require citizens to stay at home. Few will argue the medical validity of the measures that have the greatest opportunity to halt the spread of this dangerous virus. And I will plead here for all to follow that advice. Socially distance yourself and your family. Wash your hands. Disinfect everything. Only go to public places for essentials. If you must go to public places, take precautions. Don’t put yourself at risk. And equally your duty, don’t place others at risk because of your behavior. That said, we must always pause during times of great stress and fear to not lose sight of ourselves.
I am one that believes that every life is precious. One life ended before its time is tragic. Yet I also know that this virus does not ultimately claim the overwhelming majority of its victims. And by following the recommendations laid out by our talented and heroic healthcare professionals, we can mitigate that damage as well. But I also know that when our societal contract is broken, when commerce is unilaterally cancelled, those actions also pose their own risks to life and health. The stress and anxiety of financial uncertainty can lead to spousal and child abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, and often death in great numbers. It regrettably occurs more frequently than what we are seeing from the global pandemic, and its scars can affect multiple generations.
There are hundreds of thousands of businesses across our country that can operate in a safe and responsible manner during this pandemic. Many of these can operate with no more risk than a family takes by sheltering at home. They can continue to provide financial support in the form of paychecks and benefits to millions of workers. As importantly, they can provide emotional support and a sense of worth during a trying time like no other. And they can provide much needed goods and services to the public. For government to infringe upon these operations strikes at both our personal liberties as well as our societal well-being.
In the end, this emergency will pass. Before then, many actions will be taken by government as we navigate through this unprecedented uncertainty. Many, although well intended, will be damaging. Many others will be justified. But as George Will recently pointed out, what will not be justified are “attempts to use today’s real emergency as an excuse to rewrite the nation’s social contract in order to accustom Americans to life suited to a permanent emergency”. We must continue to embrace and trust in the principles that built this great country. For liberty and freedom and law are what enable us to recover, time after time, even when faced with the most despicable foe.