The American republic was designed for evolution

John Trumbull's painting of the Second Continental Congress reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence was commissioned in 1817 and placed in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in 1826.
John Trumbull's painting of the Second Continental Congress reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence was commissioned in 1817 and placed in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in 1826.

In my judicial chambers at the United States Courthouse in Columbus, I have two large framed prints from historical paintings displayed at the U.S. Capitol. One is John Trumbull’s famous depiction of the presentation of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress. The second is Howard Chandler Christy’s painting of the signing of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Neither painting includes a black male or a female of any race. Several of the founding fathers portrayed in the paintings owned slaves, and those who did not had views on race that would not comport with modern standards.

In light of recent protests that seek to remove from public display those parts of our history that were not racially inclusive, I have contemplated whether some may find these historic prints inappropriate for a federal judge’s chambers.

But as I broaden my focus beyond these paintings consisting entirely of white men, I notice three other items hanging from my chamber walls — a photograph of Abraham Lincoln superimposed upon his Gettysburg Address, a framed photograph of myself with my then state Senate colleague Ed Harbison from a 1996 article appearing in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer captioned “Promises of the New South have come true,” and a photograph of the six judges who currently sit on my court, including a black male and black female.

As I survey these snapshots of significant historical events and personally meaningful occasions in my own life, I do not see them in isolation. Instead, a collage appears reflecting how our country has evolved during the last 240 years. This evolution was made possible, in part, by the foundation laid by our founders and the courage of subsequent generations to build upon that foundation as we progressed toward equal opportunity for all Americans.

Consistent with the flawed nature of the human condition, our forefathers were not perfect. But they constructed the foundation for a form of government that is capable of evolution — one that depends upon the consent of the governed and allows its citizens to rise above prejudice and ignorance over time as enlightenment dawns. This grand experiment began with a declaration that not only enumerated our reasons for seeking independence but contained the aspirational promise that all people are created equal with certain rights that shall not be disturbed.

That idealistic promise contained in our Declaration of Independence, however, presents the enigma that has bothered us since our country’s inception. We are a nation that was conceived in liberty at a time when freedom was not available to everyone. Importantly, we did not accept that condition as permanent. Our history also reveals that we evolved as a country, albeit too slowly. Through many struggles, we eventually recognized that a country built upon a love of liberty cannot survive rationing freedom based upon race.

Those struggles included a civil war to expand the promise of the Declaration of Independence to all Americans. We amended our Constitution shortly after that war to assure that slavery was abolished forever, that the right to vote could not be denied based upon race, and that all persons were guaranteed equal protection under the law.

But even after these momentous developments, our imperfect human nature caused us to continue to deny fundamental rights to many Americans. As we proclaimed freedom abroad during the world wars of the early and mid-20th Century in a righteous fight against fascism and Nazism, we still allowed the evil of “Jim Crow” to persist at home with government-sanctioned racial segregation and the denial of basic legal rights to a large number of our fellow Americans.

But our capacity for evolution would not let this hypocrisy stand. In 1954, a courageous Supreme Court, interpreting the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, declared racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional. And the march toward eliminating de jure segregation once and for all intensified — not only for schools but also for places of public accommodation and transportation. Exercising their First Amendment rights that had been ratified in 1791, a brave generation of Americans over 160 years later mobilized a movement that changed the world forever. That movement culminated in the adoption of the voting and civil rights statutes of the 1960s, making it a violation of federal law to discriminate based on race or gender and providing meaningful remedies for such violations.

Only the most naïve or uninformed would suggest that racial animus has been erased from the hearts and minds of every American. And it is hard to dispute that the arc of our evolution toward justice has been much too long. But as slow and messy as our progress has been, it is undeniable that we have generally moved over time in the right direction. Rather than focusing on how to continue our evolution, today we seem to be bogged down in debates about what parts of the past we should tear down and how different we are from each other. The struggles of our past were fought so that many of these differences would one day be irrelevant, not so that they would identify and define us.

Whether, as a symbolic gesture, we should tear down statues of soldiers riding magnificent horses or change the names of streets, buildings and military bases is subject to honest disagreement. But no matter how the symbolism battle unfolds, we will still be left with a country with serious challenges ahead. Perhaps in the midst of the heated rhetoric and statuary rubble, we can leave our divided territories for just a moment to search for common ground — ground that unites us as a country and upon which we can stand to build up America and not tear it down.

As for the art work and photographs in my chambers, they shall remain. They are a daily reminder of important unifying foundational principles and the unique evolutionary character of the United States of America, a nation still abundant with incomparable freedom, hope and opportunity, as well as the capacity to change.

Clay D. Land, a former Columbus councilor and state senator, is chief U.S. district judge for the Middle District of Georgia.