The Power and Peril of Written Words

America, A Prophecy by William BlakeI believe that it is important to intelligently question the modern relevance of our ancestors’ words. It is as important to literature as it is to government. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted on December 15th, 1791, exactly 221 years ago today.

I currently live in England–a country with no written constitution. Upon discovering this, the American comedian Jon Stewart laughed out loud, insinuating that the British were “too polite” to set their thoughts on government down in a single document. In reality, countless legal documents, and their interpretation, make up the “unwritten constitution”–allowing it to be continually debated, updated, and adapted to the practicalities of modern times by parliament.

After a hard-won Revolutionary War against a British government that restricted freedom of speech and assembly, only permitted firearms to be purchased through them in limited quantities, and also forced Colonists to quarter soldiers without warning, it makes sense that the First, Second, and Third Amendments to the US Constitution were soon passed. The First one has proved vital to a healthy democracy; the Third one seems pretty irrelevant these days.

However, as soon as you suggest that the Second Amendment, and its subsequent interpretation allowing citizens to own firearms for self-defence independent of a militia, might not be well-suited to the Twenty-First Century, you will probably be called “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” It is an insult that was no doubt hurled at supporters of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the Fifteenth Amendment allowing people to vote regardless of race, and the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote. But those were additions. The only time a Constitutional Amendment was ever scrubbed out was the prohibition of alcohol, both established and repealed in the early Twentieth Century.

This is because the words inked by the Founding Fathers at the end of the Eighteenth Century have become inextricably tied to our sense of American identity. It is evident that a well-executed plan to progressively regulate the ownership of non-hunting firearms in the US would cause its track record of gun-related deaths to plummet to levels known by most other wealthy, developed nations. But steps in this direction are seen by many as an “un-American” restriction of a freedom enshrined in the Constitution. It was, after all, put there by men who proved, on some counts, to have remarkable foresight. On others, however, it would seem they were simply responding to the circumstances of their time (such as in the case of quartering soldiers).

The poet William Blake was active in this same era, and much of what he wrote still speaks to me, though not all. Two years after the Second Amendment was made law, he wrote the epic poem “America, A Prophecy” in which he predicts and implores:

Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

Would that it were true–that tyrannies of imperial violence were cast off by the American Revolution once and for all.

Neither law nor poetry endures meaningfully but through continual examination, revision, and interpretation. That, to me, is something not only critical to a democracy, but which transcends national allegiances when it comes to protecting and promoting the well-being of our fellow human beings–and especially those most vulnerable in society.

More and more, the phrase “what got you here won’t get you there” would seem to apply to our particularly American fascination with the written words of our Founding Fathers. What we need, instead of ancestor-worship, are individuals with the courage and conviction of those original Revolutionaries to stand up for the well-being of all in modern times. Those are the ones–the Lincolns and Dr. Kings–who have actually “got us here” since 1776–and they did it by revising the Constitution. The government “of laws, not men” actually needs–most of all–courageous men and women to continually re-write our laws in light of modern circumstances.

I live in a country with a monarch, no constitution, and no guns. I have never felt safer.

The only way my homeland will begin to approach similar levels of peace will be to stop re-reading as sacred the texts of early founders, and begin actively drafting and re-drafting their own better future. It will be messy–with strike-outs and smudge marks like all good written works in progress. But I, for one, still believe that there is time to fulfill that Blakean prophecy, putting an end to both oppression and violence with the courage to examine our ideas and our words.