I. What is it to be American?
What is it to be an American? Is it to live at certain points on a map? Is it to have the right to vote? Is it to have the right to free speech? Is it to have the strongest military? Is it capitalism? Is it George Washington? Norman Rockwell? William Faulkner? Aaron Copland? John Wayne? Baseball? Apple pie? All of the above? None of the above? Or is it something much more?
II. America is an Idea
America is really an idea: an idea of liberty, or freedom. It is an idea that recognizes man is born with certain rights which are inseparable from him. It is an idea of a new nation. A nation based on a form of government by the consent of the governed, founded on certain principles, and granted certain powers organized in such a way as to best secure those rights and liberties for the people it governs. This idea of a new American nation is set out in two separate but interconnected documents: The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The Constitution flows from and is a natural outgrowth of the principles of the Declaration.
III. The Vision of the Founders
The men who created and shaped these two documents, America’s founding fathers, were men of great vision but also men of practical common sense. They truly believed they were putting forth self-evident truths, but they knew full well the radical departure they were taking from what must have seemed, at the time, the destined march of human history. So when Thomas Jefferson put ink-dipped quill to paper, the Declaration of Independence, he knew, would be a fundamental rejection of all other forms of government extant at that time. Most especially, the Founders of the new American nation were intent on differentiating and separating themselves (or dissolving all political bands) from the country that was their progenitor turned antagonist: Great Britain.
In taking this upon themselves, the Founders relied on the protection of Divine Providence and pledged to one another their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. If they failed, they knew that their lives would be over, and that no future history would remember them for long. Indeed, they and their cause would be a mere footnote to history: rebels who dared challenge the might of the British Empire and who were justly crushed by it. But they did not fail. Miraculously, they succeeded in their cause. They prevailed, even though at times all seemed lost.
The Founders knew, however, that it would not be enough to merely win. They knew that if they were victorious over the British they could not simply substitute one kind of tyranny for another: one despotic ruler for another despotic ruler. No, the form of government which they would need to create and put in place would have to be something quite different from the European model of a supreme centralized state authority as embodied in the personage of a king. Indeed, so worried were they about this, that the first form of government they ratified, the Articles of Confederation, was hardly a government at all. It was so removed from any central form of government that it resulted in near anarchy and was an utter failure. So they tried again. And this time they got the balance right.
The Founders envisioned and created a new and unique form of government. They foresaw that if they put in place only that government which was absolutely necessary, such conditions would allow the maximum amount of liberty for the people. They knew government could never deliver happiness to people and, if it ever tried, it would only create the opposite result. Rather, they understood that if people were merely allowed to pursue their own happiness, that they would, and that in their own way they would find it.
They also foresaw that power in such a system of government would need to be diffuse. They understood all too well that men were not to be trusted with power: that they were easily corrupted by it. Hence, the form of government they would establish would have power so balanced and so spread throughout its various layers that no one individual or group of individuals could credibly accumulate and concentrate power and so pervert the system into tyranny.
And so, the formulation of a system of government was created based on certain guaranteed liberties and certain checks and balances on power. It was to be one that would be a bulwark against those unscrupulous individuals who crave power and would seek to use power to subvert liberty.
IV. American ExceptionalismSo unique was this new system of American government that people began to talk about it, and the concept of “American Exceptionalism” arose. American Exceptionalism is something I have touched on several times before in these writings. It is a philosophy that can be traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian who in the 1830s travelled throughout the young American nation and was quite impressed by what he saw. And no wonder. Coming from Europe where despotism was still entrenched, American democracy was a refreshing and remarkable experiment. So inspired was he that he wrote about it. His treatise, Democracy in America, is a major work on the early American nation, its government and society. In it, he depicted America as having established a form of government that created a remarkable balance between individual liberty and the needs of the community. In this, he saw the young American nation as truly unique in the world. Indeed, it was exceptional.
V. Abraham Lincoln and American Liberty
Abraham Lincoln also knew that America was a unique and exceptional nation. Delivered in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a kind of testament and prayer in recognition of America’s unique position in the world. At the time, the fate of this nation “conceived in liberty” must have seemed very much in doubt, and Lincoln obviously feared that this, the only beacon of liberty on earth, could very well be snuffed out. On this July 4th, it is worth remembering his stirring and enduring words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. –Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863.
The nation survived that ordeal, but both Lincoln, and the Founders before him, knew that this unique concept, this idea of liberty embodied in a nation, would be tested throughout its existence, as it had been during the Civil War. And they knew it would be tested from without and from within. The year following his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln made the following statement on liberty:
We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny. –Abraham Lincoln, 1864
VI. Liberty and Tyranny Today
Lincoln’s quote on liberty and tyranny seems most prescient. For in America today there are those who would call a thing liberty when it is really tyranny. They are Americans who would do with other Americans and the product of other Americans’ labors as they please and all the while call that liberty. Or compassion. Or spreading the wealth. Or social justice. Or socialism. But by whatever words they may call it, it has but one name: tyranny.
They are the ones Lincoln and the Founders forewarned us against. They are the ones who would test liberty again and again and, if they could, take America away from what it was and remake her into something else. They would use the power of the government as a tool to compel Americans to do what they think Americans should be doing with their lives. They would use the power of government to compel Americans to embrace certain things and give up other things; to compel Americans to obey certain rules but dispense with other rules. And they would call these actions the granting of “rights” and they would do so operating under the banner of liberty. They would change, if they succeed, the very idea of America.
And they are succeeding. They are doing these things right now, and they are doing them from within. There are leaders in America today who think it is government’s role and function to change people’s inclinations: to get them to do what they think they should do. They seek to enact laws that purport to make certain groups or classes of people healthier and happier; or laws that are intended to make things more affordable, or safer, or cleaner, or easier, or more efficient; or laws designed to advance a particular cause or industry or private—but politically connected—entity within an industry. In essence doling out happiness, to some. And all at the expense of other people. This stands diametrically against everything the Founders envisioned for this country. And it is an anathema to the very idea of America. Charity and compassion when compelled by governments, are neither charity nor compassion. They are hoped-for handouts, that in turn become expected welfare, and that in turn become entitlements.
Most Americans today don’t think or probably even care much about all this stuff. For them, it is just a bunch of politicians bickering, as usual. But make no mistake: there is a war going on right now and right here in America. Not a war fought with guns and bullets (at least not yet) but with ideas. And the victor will determine the kind of nation we will be. On the one side are those who believe the Founders got it right from the beginning. That their formulation is one that works better than any other system ever has or ever could. On the other side are those who think that the Founders’ views, while perhaps historically interesting, are to be seen as quaint and misguided, and in these modern times, certainly outdated. They see the Founders as just a bunch of decrepit old white men who dressed funny and wore funny wigs and who just “wouldn’t get” what America is all about today. They see America as having run its course, as being on the wrong side of history, as needing to be more like modern Europe or other nations of the world. They see America as a country in desperate need of change, or even “fundamental transformation.” There is no single idea or viewpoint that could be more wrong or more dangerous to this country’s existence than this one, for it takes aim at the very heart of what we are.
What makes us exceptional, unique and unlike the other nations of the world, both past and present, is an idea. An idea of liberty that binds us together as Americans. We, as a nation, took a divergent path off of the historical road towards strong centralized government. Yet, there are those who would have us return to that road and become more like other nations. If we do, we will move further away from what we are meant to be: further away from what it means to be American.
The Founders bequeathed to us and made us stewards of a simple and elegant formula. A way for a self-governing and self-reliant people to pursue happiness on earth. For the Founders, it was their vision, their dream. And to be American today is to have the great privilege to actually live this beautiful dream as a reality. Now, why on earth would we ever want to change that?
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