Posts Tagged ‘independence from Great Britain’

To Be American

July 4, 2010

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 Exceptionalism

Alexis de Tocqueville

So 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.

VII. Conclusion

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?

Related posts on this topic:

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/coming-undone/

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/america-r-i-p/

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/why-you-don%e2%80%99t-have-a-right-to-healthcare/

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/the-arrogance-of-hope-change-%e2%80%a6-or-else/

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/glenn-beck%e2%80%99s-cpac-speech-tiger-woods-and-toilet-bowls-a-blackboard-and-brilliance/

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Fortune Favors the Brave

March 18, 2010

There is a phrase in Latin that the ancient Romans were fond of saying: Aduentes Fortuna Juvat.  Roughly translated, it means “fortune favors the brave.” 

Earlier this week, as a part of his final push for universal healthcare and the fundamental transformation of American culture and society, President Barrack Obama staged a rally in Ohio attended by scores of his hardcore supporters and, notably, Congressman Dennis Kucinich.  Obama concluded his speech by saying, “We need courage, that’s what we need…  I want some courage!”  He then jetted back to Washington, D.C.  The next day, Congressman Kucinich, who had been treated by the President to a ride on Air Force One, announced he was changing his “No” vote on healthcare to “Yes.”  In a speech Kucinich declared, among other things, that healthcare is a “basic right.”  Time will tell whether or not fortune smiles upon Mr. Kucinich.

Well, with all this talk by politicians about being courageous, I thought it would be appropriate to take a moment to look at an American leader with real courage: George Washington.  Now, I am quite sure most of us all know at least a few generalities about the following story from our high school history.  Unless of course you are a student in high school today, in which case you are busy learning about much more important things like: The Influence of Hip-Hop on American Culture; The Proper Way to Use a Condom; and Why You Don’t Need a Daddy to Have a Family.  But be that as it may, here goes…

It was winter of the year 1776.  The new American nation had declared its independence from Great Britain the previous July and all-out war with the British was underway.  The American Continental Army, led by General George Washington, had been beaten and chased out of New York by the British forces and was in a desperate retreat.  British General Lord Cornwallis had pursued Washington’s diminishing army through New Jersey, until the Americans withdrew across the Delaware River and took refuge in Pennsylvania in early December.  Although General Washington’s skillful retreat had prevented the British from completely crushing the dwindling American force, the outlook for the Continental Army, and American prospects for winning the war, was very bleak indeed. 

George Washington had fewer than 5,000 men in his army, whose morale was now at its lowest.  The Congress, ever pessimistic, had turned tail from Philadelphia and fled to Baltimore.  There was no money left to finance the army.  Provisions were scarce and Washington’s men were starving and cold.  “These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine, who was actually with the army at the time.  Virtually everyone considered the American cause lost.  That is, everyone except George Washington.  At this dire hour, faced with these demoralizing circumstances, George Washington, a man of deep faith and courage, decided to go on the offensive.  He knew that, despite the forces arrayed against him, he had two things in his favor. First, the popular mood among the people against the British remained strong, and, second, he had the element of surprise on his side.  So rallying his men before dawn on December 26th, he secretly led them back across the Delaware River, over land to Trenton, New Jersey where a force of some one thousand Hessian troops (German mercenaries engaged by the British) were quartered. Washington and his men took the Hessians by complete surprise and, after a brief engagement, defeated the entire force with negligible losses to their own side.  So overconfident were the Hessians that they were caught sleeping off the effects of their Christmas revelry from the night before.  As the story goes, after the battle the Hessian Colonel was found dead with a dispatch letter in his coat pocket warning him of the American sneak attack.  The letter was unopened.

Aduentes Fortuna Juvat!

After this victory, the American war effort was galvanized, the Congress found renewed confidence in General Washington, and enlistments in the Continental Army increased dramatically.  Eventually, the British were forced to retreat to their base in New York City.  Many consider this battle to be the turning point in the American Revolutionary War.  In later years, George Washington himself became convinced that America was guided by Divine Providence.  Fortune favors the brave.

In this the current battle over universal healthcare, we all of us are called once more unto the breach to defend what George Washington and his brave men risked so much to obtain.  On one side are the Republicans in Congress, some Democrats, and the vast majority of the American people whose mood against the proposed legislation remains strong.  On the other side are Mr. Obama and most Congressional Democrats.  In this process, we have seen secret deals made and Senators bribed, all manner of legislative chicanery used, deception and outright lies told by politicians at the highest levels, and a President who on the one hand expresses his ambivalence as to how his legislation is passed into law — as long as it is passed into law — while on the other hand talks about courage.  Courage?  Just what sort of courage do you mean Mr. President?

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For more on the healthcare debate, link to:

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/why-you-don%e2%80%99t-have-a-right-to-healthcare/

https://culturecrusader.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/the-arrogance-of-hope-change-%e2%80%a6-or-else/