Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Liberty Bell, Jubilee, and a 35th Amendment

Photo by Orlando Rob. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Today is the 260th anniversary of the letter that sent the order for the Liberty Bell. The inscription on the Liberty Bell is from Leviticus 25:10, where Israel is instructed to forgive debts every 50 years, declaring jubilee - or Liberty.  (By the way, this Sunday is the 25th anniversary of Reagan's amnesty, so this is an interesting week for the theme of forgiveness.)

Because today is also the start of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, my post today will be a humble attempt at creative writing - inspired by the Liberty Bell, its historic inspiration, and its promise for America.

This fictional piece is about the ratification of a theoretical 35th Amendment to the Constitution granting citizenship to anyone and everyone who has lived in the U.S. for twenty-one years. It represents jubilee, and liberty. Perhaps it is in our future, or perhaps not.

You can peek into that world (and into my very rough skill set of creative expression) in the rest of the post, below.

The Thirty-Fifth Amendment
by John Lamb

It was November 1, and the President was supposed to have given this announcement in front of the Liberty Bell, just before Thanksgiving.  The advance team had set up security, seating, red-white-and-blue bunting, and the attendance list of local, national, and even international luminaries. Heads of state were on their way, some already changing planes and making intermediate appearances in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. The presidential speech was on the drafting table, starting the exchange of handwritten edits with the Oval Office. But the Tennessee vote, which had long been in the "no" column, surprisingly flipped to a "yes" at the last minute, making ratification complete ahead of schedule. There were too many people celebrating in Nashville (and scrambling to find a way to Nashville) to wait until Philadelphia two weeks later. News crews were sending their national correspondents. The story had moved, and that was that.

The White House announcement would be made in Nashville, at the State Capitol.  As luck would have it, half of the West Wing and two former presidents were already in Music City for the funeral of one of the proponents of this very Constitutional Amendment. It was an easy call to stay for the formal proclamation of its passage, in the State that made it happen.

Tennessee had played this role in history before, putting women's suffrage into the Constitution with a razor-thin margin, surprisingly voting "yes" when most thought it would go "no." The change of heart of a single legislator came after a call from his mother.

Now, in the mid-21st century, this 35th Amendment made it over the top in Tennessee, and the pundits were on screens everywhere trying to explain it. Perhaps it was the untimely death of the Texas Senator who proposed and championed the amendment. His charisma, his personal experiences, his conviction, and his quiet patriotism had been magnetic, and America was captivated. Losing this leader to tragedy had the inevitable effect of swaying public opinion even more in favor of the policy closest to his heart.

Some pundits guessed that Tennessee saw the writing on the wall, knowing that the passage of the Amendment was inevitable. Perhaps the politicians of the Volunteer State wanted to steal the thunder of their coastal colleagues, who had been expected all along to deliver the final, ratifying vote. It was common knowledge that Tennessee had been in a bad way in the national headlines over the past few years, after decades of continued growth and rising visitor tallies. Despite the hot talk of local partisan media from Memphis to Kingsport, rural and big-city legislators saw the same poll numbers everyone else did - most Americans, even Tennesseans, were ready for the Constitutional righting of the ship.

Maybe it was the fact that there was a vast national appetite for any Constitutional amendment with substance, after a slew of seemingly minor causes were embedded into the sacred, founding text. Trivial things like the ban on federal regulation of tobacco, the prohibition of the metric system, the subsequent repeal of the metric prohibition, the national symbol amendment, and the elimination of the Social Security number.

Maybe it was the ministers, priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, and other faith leaders who were vocal from their pulpits at first, and then later in the homes of their followers, and in public spaces, and in the media, and ultimately in the offices and homes of the legislators in every one of the voting states. Maybe one of them had gotten through to that key Tennessee legislator who, just like her 20th century counterpart, switched her vote at the last minute.

Only the local journalists, covering what they thought would be a non-event "no" vote, had gotten a glimpse of Tennessee House Representative Lauren Kent Yarbrough as she voted "yea" and left the House chamber. Video footage seemed to indicate that she had been in tears, from the red flush around her eyes and in her cheeks. Questions directed at her staff and her fellow legislators were pointless - they did not know what had happened to "Rep. Y."  It was only inevitable that the sidebars of a dozen news stories the next day contained some version of the quip, "Rep. Why?"

However it happened, the ratification of the 35th Amendment was now official. The Constitution would be expanded by these twenty-four words:
"All persons having resided in the United States for twenty-one years are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
Even though Philadelphia would no longer be the site of the announcement, the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell would still be invoked by the President in his remarks:
"Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof."
Transmitted by letter on November 1, 1751, those words from Leviticus had been chosen by the Pennsylvania Assembly for the steeple of their state house, in a revelatory architectural mix of religion and government. The Hebrew text contains instructions for "jubilee" - the forgiveness of debts. The bell itself was ordered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that state's constitution, which liberally included Native Americans and all citizens in the rights and responsibilities of governance. And the bell was subsequently adopted 11 decades later as a symbol of emancipation, following the Civil War.

Now, on a November 1 three centuries after the Liberty Bell was ordered, a new kind of American jubilee was born. The time and place was being written into the history books.

But there were still questions, and not too long after the streets would eventually be cleared of the masses still growing by the minute, those questions would have to be answered.

And the first person who would have to answer questions would be Rep. Yarbrough. Her caucus chair wanted to have a word with her.

But she was too happy to care.

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