Harvey Graff

The Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity.” All states endorse this “founding,” if aspirational, text. American history, even before 1776 and 1787 and long after those dates, has been devoted to making those aspirations a reality for all Americans.

A dominating conception of “the public” is central to the U.S. in theory and centuries-long struggles. Today represents an extraordinary retreat, especially for people other than white males. For the partly empowered peoples from 1863-65 “emancipations” through women’s suffrage in1920 and civil and voting rights legislation in 1965, an inclusive public has always been contested. The battle increases anew with the combined and interconnected assaults on public health, public education, public safety, genuine choice and freedom, right to vote, right to control one’s body, right to gender determination, right to....

Yet the actual text of the Constitution, like the letter of the laws and the Declaration of Independence, is a surprise to many right-wing ideologues and their followers. In sharp contradiction to the founding texts and the abundance of court case histories, they “promote” ignorant and false notions of “freedom” and “rights.” Genuine conservatives—who respect facts, honor debate, support tolerance, and campaign for limited government, not banning everything with which they disagree—have always endorsed the Constitution. They argue over more subtle, interpretative issues.

What today’s false “freedom fighters” share with their book-banning and free-speech-curtailing co-conspirators is a willful lack of knowledge of—a refusal or perhaps an inability to read—the texts that they alternatively wish to enshrine or “cancel,” to use one of their favorite terms. To a historian, this is unprecedented.

To a significant extent, this challenge results from the right-wing assault on strong public education, rigorously trained teachers, and broadly and deeply educated youngsters prepared for maturity and citizenship—and on the free speech of these parties. (See Graff, “The new illiteracy and the banning of books, past and present,” forthcoming; Graff, “There is no debate about critical race theory,” Washington Monthly, Sept. 4, 2021, Graff, “The new white fright and flight and the critical race theory nondebate,” Academe Blog, Sept. 30, 2021.

In the place of our once-proud tradition of “We the People,” “more perfect Union,” and “general Welfare,” we have inconsistent, contradictory, and selfish campaigns against commonsense public health, such as regular vaccinations that were accepted practice and whose success is unquestioned. This is the new, radical individualism and selfishness. It includes arguments that amount to the purported “right” to catch and spread disease and death to oneself, one’s loved ones, and the public.

Similarly, we have “arguments” (I hesitate to dignify them with that word) that ignore the text of the Second Amendment and far exceed Justice Antonin Scalia’s “District of Columbia v. Heller” ruling, which stated that “gun rights” are not completely without restrictions. Resulting in documented gun unsafety, these misunderstandings led to unpopular laws in Texas, the most extreme of a number of states, allowing open carry and mandating against licenses, permits, or training. The great majority of the public, the courts and law enforcement, and the health and medical professions all oppose this. But other Republican-dominated state legislatures and governors rush to imitate each other. [See my “GOP lawmakers spin their wheels on ideologically inspired laws, hurting Ohio,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 16, 2021; “Why aren’t Ohio’s GOP officials taking action to address AAPI hate?” Cleveland Plain Dealer,Aug. 25, 2021,Ohio should stop importing legislation from other states,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 17,2021. These radicals are either unable or uninterested in following or even reading the mounting evidence.

Dominating today’s news is the overheated and misunderstood notion of individuals’ “right” to self-defense and to appoint themselves as “militia.” The Second Amendment states “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Distorted by defense attorneys and some judges, it does not affirm the right of an under-aged person to carry an illegal, assault-style weapon across Wisconsin state lines in order to act as an uninvited, self-appointed defender of another person’s property and unqualified “medic” in Kenosha. Or his “right” to kill two people and wound another on dubious claims of “being threatened.”

Nor does the Second Amendment and its case law embrace three men in Georgia purporting to be self-appointed volunteer police who shoot and kill an unarmed black jogger on grounds—if that—of “suspicious” behavior that they themselves did not witness. In Charlottesville, Virginia, perpetrators of deadly rioting, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism justify their actions as “free speech” under the First Amendment.

The campaign of distortion and ignorance does not stop with physical safety, which affects the vulnerable population most severely. It includes efforts to limit the protection of free speech and to promote hate and malicious speech, which laws have restricted for centuries. It also includes the legal right to vote, which is being aggressively limited today because of false and undocumented claims of election “inconsistencies” or “irregularities”—and acknowledged fears among the white population of becoming a minority among the electorate. That is not the “People,” “Union,” or “general Welfare.”

Similarity, the newly conceived abuse—without choice or control—of “the public” and “Welfare” excludes women’s right to control their bodies. It excludes the rights of the differently gendered to much at all, including teen participation in school sports and choice of restrooms. Note that none of these constitutionally guaranteed rights harms other persons.

I call for a resurrection of “the public,” “the People,” and “general Welfare” at a time of great danger. In addition to the legal issues discussed here, we need to address the environment, the welfare of all children, a livable minimum wage, genuine social security and medical care for all, paid parental leave and similar social measures that would permit the U.S. to join more than 100 other nations around the world (many of them much poorer states). We cannot wait another day.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history, including Searching for Literacy later this year. His specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.