As one gets older, birthdays become not only a time of celebration, but also a time for reflection. I guess this applies to countries, too, at least that's the feeling I get whenever we celebrate another 4th of July and I see the myriad commentaries on our founding, our current state of affairs, and our various potential futures. A recurring theme that I do love to see is the oft-noted point that America is the only country ever founded on an idea: that people are 'free', created equal by God, and possessing unalienable rights bestowed upon them by God--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Men should be free to conduct their affairs without undue interference, free to engage in discourse and commerce with whomever they wish, free to take advantage of opportunities to as great an extent as their abilities and ambition might make possible, and free to express and practice their beliefs...all without fear that a government would arbitrarily impose abusive restraints, conditions, or penalties to force compliance with 'acceptable' or 'required' behaviors as determined by the State.
America's drive for independence was fueled by 'a long train of abuses and usurpations' intended to subject the Colonists to despotic rule. For a very long while, the Colonists desired only to have their complaints heard and addressed by the King; they repeatedly expressed their wish to remain loyal to the Crown but as citizens in equal standing with their fellow Englishman.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.
'Repeated injury' made clear that the Crown had no intention of honoring the wishes of the people it governed in the New World colonies. This led the Colonists--through hurt, frustration, and anger at the injustices imposed on them--to consider their status, to engage in debate about what it meant to be a 'citizen' in the first place, to consider the implications of what it meant to be created in God's 'likeness', to be 'free Men.' In the end, a drafting committee established by the convened representatives of the several Colonies settled on these words that birthed a new country and that have since served as inspiration for so many other peoples around the world:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Implicit in the work of the delegates was the expectation that 'free men' would act responsibly, that they would be accountable for themselves and their actions (or inactions), just as governments should be accountable to serve the interests of the people from whom they derive their 'just powers'. The Colonies declared their independence from England because the government refused to be held accountable for its unjust treatment of its subjects. In choosing to establish their own country, the colonists took advantage of the rare opportunity to form a government whose form and function would reflect the ideals outlined in the Declaration. It would take another decade before that government took its final shape but when it did it reflected the sense of independence and personal responsibility implied by the Continental Congress and highlighted by the various writings of the Founding Fathers.
Some fifty-five years after the Declaration was signed, two young French noblemen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, arrived at the direction of the French government ostensibly to study the American prison system though their real interest in coming to America was to study the society of this new and vibrant country. Though both men penned volumes based on their observations during the trip, Tocqueville's On Democracy in America (text here) became the far better known.
Tocqueville had much to say about his trip to America, in the two volumes of Democracy and in various letters he wrote and talks he gave in the years that followed. He noted that America's greatness extended, in part, from the goodness of its people, but warned that should Americans cease to be good, so too would America cease to be great.
America is great because she is good. If American ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Similarly, he rightly connected the liberty enjoyed by Americans and the goodness that informed America's greatness with the idea that God-centered Faith was necessary and essential for the proper workings of both.
Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.
He also noted that personal freedom and the 'unalienable rights' at the center of America's founding documents were crucially dependent on the extent to which citizens took an active and productive role in the functioning of society.
The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.
As I read these and so many other related statements pertaining to the character, quality, vitality, and viability of our country, what it has stood for however imperfectly over its 237 years, and the principles upon which it was founded, I cannot help but also think about the issues facing our country today and the many problems that are afflicting our society, the vast majority of which are self-inflicted.
One commentator has noted that “According to Tocqueville, democracy had some unfavorable consequences: the tyranny of the majority over thought, a preoccupation with material goods, and isolated individuals. Democracy in America predicted the violence of party spirit and the judgment of the wise subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant.” Others foresaw these problems, too, because they understood that the strength of our country and the type of government our Founding Fathers knew would best support our 'unalienable rights' also carried the seeds of its undoing.
Upon leaving Independence Hall on the closing day of deliberations by the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin responded to a women who asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” with “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. ~ John Adams
Sustaining our great and good country demands the active and informed participation of our citizenry on a consistent basis and for our citizenry to choose to manifest the principles enshrined in our Declaration and reflected in the form of government stipulated in our Constitution, especially those that are implied: personal responsibility and accountability, the exercise of self-discipline, individual behavior guided by a closely held moral code that is itself rooted in one's conviction of a higher guiding Authority, and the courage to hold elected officials accountable when they hold their own interests above those of their country and fellow citizens.
During the 2012 political season, I had occasion to be involved in a political campaign. Among the many insights I gained from that experience one, in particular, stood out far more prominently than any other. Based on frequent and prolonged interaction with the voting public over the course of a pretty intense year, I concluded that the greatest threat to our country comes not from any physical danger posed by terrorists or a competitor state, or even the growing fiscal dangers generated by our extraordinary levels of debt and complete inability to restrain our spending habits, but rather from the growing divide between our citizenry and our government. Specifically, I found that the American voting public is generally apathetic, highly cynical, and quite uninformed...a sad combination of traits that feed on each other with tragic results but that are, I think, a natural result of "extended affluence."
Over its 237-year history, our country has enjoyed such great success that it stands astride the world. The dissolution of the Soviet Union left us with no existential threat. We possess the largest and most productive economy. We enjoy greater abundance, more opportunity, and fewer basic concerns than any other people in any other country. But our success has bred complacency, disinterest in the world around us, a singular lack of curiosity about the ‘why’ of our success and the lack of it elsewhere, and the expectation that our quality of life is a right unto itself with little obligation, if any, for each person to contribute to its maintenance...after all, everything that might be enjoyed in this country is a 'right': healthcare, a good paying job, higher education, broadband internet access. In fact, it seems that legal citizenship isn't even required these days. Go figure!
Because so many people have ceased to care and have such little interest in making the effort to understand the reasons for our condition, they are readily seduced by politicians who make wholly unrealistic promises to garner their vote; who couch government subsidies as ‘entitlements’ rather than costly programs that divert limited resources from wealth- and opportunity-generating private enterprise; and who promote sundry programs and 'benefits' that inexorably make our ‘free and independent’ people subordinate to and dependent on the good will of the government.
Worsening the divide are the accumulated abuses of power by fellow citizens who gain public office only to use it for personal gain. Every time a government official--whether elected, appointed, or career civil servant--betrays the trust of the public, they feed the public’s cynicism of all things ‘government, widening the divide between the American people and the government our forefathers intended would serve the public’s interests. Perhaps as a consequence, the percentage of eligible voters who take the time and interest to participate in our elective process declines each year to the point where nearly half don't bother to vote even in a national general election and barely 20% participate during the Primaries. Among those who do cast a vote, an increasing percentage vote for candidates who promise the easy path, who make no demands for self-discipline, who pillory the productive sector—perversely casting wealth-and job-creators as the enemy of those who need jobs that provide the surest path to wealth and greater opportunities, who coopt and distort the ideals of ‘freedom,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘tolerance’ in ways that advance the interests of party and ideology over the long-term interests of our country and that betray the original meaning of these principles as they were understood and applied by our Founders.
But this isn’t something new to our time. Returning to Tocqueville, he recognized the subtle, seductive, but ultimately lethal danger of 'soft despotism':
Thus, After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.
Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.
By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.
It's not that Tocqueville was prescient. Rather, he was a keen observer of people and recognized their natural tendency to seek the easiest path over time. This is the very situation weakening our country today. Doesn't our government "[extend] its arms over the whole of the community...covering the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules...that seldom [forces men] to act, but...constantly [restrains them] from acting"? Doesn't our citizenry seem content to extend and deepen its dependency on the multitude of programs, subsidies, and protected statuses generated by the government they have selected to act as shepherd?
It seems that while we were successful in gaining independence from an abusive tyrant, fought a horrific civil war to maintain a Union free of forced servitude, and throughout the 20th Century engaged in numerous battles large and small to promote Freedom and Democracy elsewhere we find ourselves willfully subjugating ourselves to our own government. Entitlements without work. Rights without responsibilities. Authority without accountability. A willingness to complain without first educating oneself as to the 'why' or 'how' of things. Comfort in demanding without contributing. And willful ignorance, if not outright condoning or, worse, desiring, policies harmful to our long-term interests then feigning outrage when the natural and logical consequences come to full flower.
To quote that great philosopher from Okefenokee Swamp, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Yes, things seem pretty dire. And yet I maintain an optimistic view of our future. Why? Because, returning full circle, I am convinced of the power and enduring quality of the principles upon which our country was founded. Just take a moment to reflect on the outcomes of all other forms of government and on the various attempts by tyrannical regimes to seize and hold power, especially in today's world. People have seen the good that comes from the system we have enjoyed for over two centuries and they want what we have. The stupid try to seize our type of power by force, but they reveal their stupidity by not understanding the 'why' of it. We forget the 'why' from time to time but eventually wake up and 'do the right thing.' Our system reflects that best ideals of Man, accounts for the tendency of men to swing from one extreme to another, for individuals to seek the easy path but for societies to recognize the harm over time and in their collective response to effect corrections...even if such corrections are more painful, bloody, and destructive than they should have been had they been corrected earlier.
Tocqueville observed that “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
I think Tocqueville is as right here as he is in his other observations. We have it in our power to correct our ways and we are blessed with a system that not only facilitates corrections but by its very organizing principles accounts for the nature of 'free men' to recognize dangers--sooner or later--and act to counter them.
I love our Country and I know that eventually we will get our act together. I just wish it didn't have to be so hard.