The Foundations of Americanism
"We hold these truths to be self-evident ...", that there are a few very basic, immutable concepts underlying the unique and successful experience we call Americanism. To abide these principles means to return to the uncomplicated freedom, personal strength and respect that was once our nation.
The Case For Rediscovering Our Foundations
America is a nation of freedom and laws, founded upon a written Constitution, which is itself an extension of the particular character of the leaders and pioneers who settled in the wilderness that was once America. At the time it was conceived, our Constitution, and the system of government it described, was unique in the world.
It was so intended. Many of its clauses were written to preclude specific governmental abuses that were common not only in British-ruled America, but in Europe in general. The Constitution immediately created a different national culture in America, one which has, over the two centuries since, produced material prosperity even beyond the hopes of the Founders. For most of that time, it also produced the freedoms they envisioned and carried forward the moral backbone on which all else is supported.
Nonetheless, we are a nation of ordinary people.
Over these two centuries we have, often unknowingly, gradually exchanged many of our original freedoms for fleeting guarantees of personal and material security, and our moral roots for passing pleasures.
We have passed laws and judgements which make it difficult to recover those freedoms or moral foundations, and created a culture which paints such efforts as uncaring or totalitarian. We have lost the faith in a Superior Being, once nearly universal, that is the basis for granting freedom, caring for one's neighbors, and establishing a common morality.
For nearly two hundred years, immigrants came to America's shores with the vision to become Americans. While they honored their roots within their homes, families and often communities, they joined the nation as Americans. Their efforts helped build and defend this country.
Now we disparage Americanism. The same Americanism which enticed so many millions of foreign nationals to leave their ancestral homes and come here to be Americans and work for America. The same Americanism that drove the Founding Fathers to risk everything for a new and free nation, and countless men and women in uniform to since risk and give their lives on its behalf.
We refer to love of nation and of national culture as extremism or xenophobia, recalling some of the truly awful people who have trotted out the term "nationalism". But that need not be the case. One can love his country and his culture while still respecting others. Our very concepts of Faith and Freedom demand that of us.
The global economy, our involvement in foreign squabbles, and the bitter and confusing political fad of multiculturalism are forcing us to look away from America, away from the ongoing need to build one nation of Americans.
A national culture does not and should not preclude the individual. But without it we cannot be a nation.
We need to look inwardly again, to what the
foundations of our culture were, where they have gone, and how we
are to get them back.
The Foundations of Americanism
Faith in a Greater PowerPractically with one voice, the creators of our Constitution reminded us that all that comes afterward: the very substance of freedom, the only basis of morality, the hoped-for future of the nation to which they gave birth, depends for its success on reverence in some form for a Superior Being.
They knew that without Faith; without the belief that there is something or Someone higher, grander, more omnipotent than ourselves, there is no reason, beyond force, to create a moral or caring society. Without Faith -- without the belief that Someone much more powerful than us detests our depredations on ourselves and our fellow man -- there is no reason beyond pure self-interest or coercion to restrain ourselves. Without Faith, there is not even a basis for defining morality or ethics beyond the whim of the day.
Therefore, without some basis of Faith in a Greater Power, we cannot advance to the grounding of a Common Morality, and beyond that to an acceptance of Mutual Freedom, based as it must be on respect for the rights of our fellow citizen as opposed to government mandate.
Jefferson rightly attributed our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the Creator, not to the government. Faith in the origin of these basic human rights is necessary if we are to keep them.
A Rooted Concept of MoralityAll law is morality. And all laws remove some degree of freedom.
We cannot divide our society between those who would legislate morality, and those who would like not to have someone else's morality imposed upon them. As a society of a vast number of laws, we are always subject to someone's ideal of morality.
The fact that our public mores are dictated by so many laws indicates that we have failed to define a common concept of morality -- one which would be accepted by the vast majority with or without the mandate of government. And yet despite the laws, that same majority seems to agree that there has almost ceased to be a recognizable public morality. That leads to the obvious conclusion that most such laws have been generated to please not the common sense of the public, but certain fringe groups, about whom our Founders warned us many a time.
On the other hand, laws that are consistent and reflect the common sense and accepted norms of morality of the people are rarely or only lightly felt. Those laws require no study or inquiry to be faithfully executed, no tricks of the legal trade to keep naturally honest people out of trouble.
If such a system of laws and governance create a hardship for those that thrive on conflict; on overcomplicated, inconsistent and indecipherable legislation; on statutes so voluminous that no single mind can comprehend them all, let alone the average citizen; on laws created with full intent to feed the endless legal appetite, then such is the price of freedom.
The presence of so many laws governing societal ethics is further indicative that we have lost the foundation of Faith that creates in us a desire to do well by our neighbor regardless of any threat or mandate to that effect. A system of Faith which grounds in us an immutable sense of honesty, of respect for our neighbor and his property, of caring for a neighbor in need, and of principle so great that we place our lives before it, also creates the basis for a common perception of morality.
Morality must be the product of common sense, common good and common acceptance. If it is, it will be no burden and will produce freedom. If it is not, it will produce coercion and moral confusion.
The Rule of TruthMore than just a Commandment to the faithful, the concept of truth also lies at the heart of democracy.
In fact, the entrusting of the people with the truth about how they are governed is perhaps the major difference between freedom and totalitarianism. No dictatorship has ever felt compelled to share with its subjects the truth of its inner workings.
Democracy, on the other hand, cannot function without an informed electorate. An uninformed, or misinformed, public is not participating in its government ... it is being used by it.
Between them, truth and a rooted concept of morality spell out the difference between a government which lies to the people, and whose officials enrich themselves at the expense of the nation's posterity, and a government which earns the trust of the people and insures the future of the success story that is America.
Over the past two decades, we have had all too much opportunity to learn that totally untruthful governance is, in fact, possible in America, and to see just what rampant corruption at the highest level of government looks like.
While it has not been America's first look at crooked governance, we need to take from it that we, ourselves, allowed it to happen. Lacking a national sense of morality and a genuine commitment to truth and honesty, we allowed our own perceived wants to be fulfilled in exchange for turning a blind eye to just who was filling them, and in exchange for what.
It's the closest America has come in her long history to no longer being a democracy, and the road back is not a short or smooth one. That's a truth we need now hear from our government.
And in the future we need to remember that hearing the truth is more important than ear candy.
In the minds of most, freedom is the main cornerstone of Americanism, and the ultimate aim of human beings everywhere. Notwithstanding the arguments of our first two principles, this is certainly true.
Freedom is so obviously a part of the unique American experience that we feel no need to broadly justify it here.
But freedom without a qualifier is anarchy, the ultimate exercise of freedom. In an anarchic environment, there is no government and, therefore, no rule of law. Without laws and without a rooted concept of morality, the boundaries of freedom extend to the point at which they are stopped with force. Those with the highest ability to exercise force will enjoy the most freedom; those with the least will suffer the greatest oppression.
Mutual freedom, often differentiated by being called Liberty, extends the bounds of personal freedom only to the extent at which they trample another person's equal right to freedom ... no less, no more. Mutual freedom, because it restricts such human frailties as greed and covetousness, must be reinforced by law or by a tightly-held common sense of ethics. True freedom comes with the latter.
But in order to establish the proper
boundaries across which our freedom interferes with
another's, we must carefully define the breadth of individual
freedom that constitutes Americanism, taking care to restrict it no
further than is absolutely essential to our concept of
mutuality. Principles Five through Eleven help us to understand
Equal Access to RepresentationThe right to an equal voice in government is the cornerstone of democracy -- without that equal voice, democracy ceases to exist.
The Constitution guarantees to every citizen the right to be equally represented to the government of the United States, going no further than its first few paragraphs to establish this concept. Amendments to that Constitution further insure that all adult citizens, including those not so enfranchised by the original document, would have the same equal voice.
Without equal representation, we cannot insure that laws will be made that meet the common good, the common morality or the Common Sense of the people -- only the good of those who are allowed representation. Without equal representation, we cannot even protect against the destruction of the very Constitution which gave us that right.
When the Founders warned against the evils of factions -- special interests and fringe groups -- they knew well that such a maldistribution of power in a democracy would destroy that democracy.
We cannot restrict the right of the people to petition government -- and that right is not quantified in the Bill of Rights. But the guarantee of equal representation demands that such voices be considered in proportion to their numbers, not their dollars or their legal prowess.
Unfortunately the assurance of an equal voice is only an opportunity, not a conclusion. To be heard, you must use that voice. Write. Call. Vote!
Respect for Private PropertyOur respect for the ownership of private property not only separates us from the many totalitarian states of the past and present, it is also one of the very basic roots of individual liberty.
Moreover, the degree to which private property is restrained, violated, and ultimately expropriated, is a close measure of the advancing decay of personal freedom.
Arguments are offered that in early civilization, and often in biblical spirit, property was held in common with the community. But, in those times, individual communities were small, self-governing, and ruled by the popular will. In such circumstances, the yielding of property to the common weal was no violation of personal freedom, as each had the freedom to do so voluntarily, or to move over the hill where the rules were different.
However, we are a nation of over three hundred million souls. The chances that so many people would voluntarily arrive at any common position affecting so personal a right as private property are virtually nil.
The only response, then, is the original American concept of the sanctity of private property, as assured to us by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
Common sense dictates that there are instances wherein private property might be taken for public use, restrained as a public threat, or even confiscated as punishment for a crime. But these instances should, in a free country, be extremely rare and subject to the closest constitutional scrutiny, including a Presumption of Innocence and a standard of fairness.
Any infringement which in any way restricts the use, or value, of private property is in fact a "taking" under the Constitution -- whether in part or in full -- and is therefore subject to the requirements of the Fifth Amendment, as well as of Common Sense and decency, that there be either or both of fair compensation and Due Process of Law.
But due process should not be as simple as a minor public official writing a little-known and less-understood regulation which makes sweeping attacks on individual freedom and the use of personal property. Unfortunately, that is what it has become.
Respect for private property, as a key measure of freedom, should go back to its absolute. From that perspective, we can apply the other Foundations, as we come to understand them, to properly ascertain what, if any, infringement government has a right to make, and what consequences must attend that infringement.
At the same time we would come to understand what our obligations are, in a free but moral society, to use that property wisely and fairly.
Equality of OpportunityThe Declaration of Independence states that "… all men are created equal ...", and that they are entitled to the "… pursuit of happiness."
Further, as previously discussed, the Constitution grants every citizen equal opportunity to have his or her voice heard in government, where the laws under which we all must live are made.
The Fourteenth Amendment further asserts that every citizen is to enjoy equal protection of those laws, at every level of governance in the United States. There are to be no special characters.
What the founders (and the proponents of the Fourteenth Amendment) have done is to insure that, from the perspective of government, every American has an equal opportunity to pursue his or her ambitions and utilize his or her talents to achieve success.
What has not been guaranteed to us is success itself. That's up to us. We can use our talents to the fullest, or we can slide through life--we are free to choose. Government must not interfere discriminately, as long as we do not break laws made for all citizens.
The obvious fact that people and inclinations are different does not permit us to assume that the results of individual efforts--or lack thereof--will be the same. Nor do the constitutional guarantees allow us to extend constitutional power into private lives and business in order to synthesize equality.
If we have all been created equal, there is nothing a mere government can do to improve upon His work. The rest is up to us.
Personal ResponsibilityWithout personal responsibility there can be no freedom.
In this regard, government is no different than business. If there is to be a cost, then the business which is to bear the cost has a Common Sense right and obligation to manage the factors which may affect that cost. So it is with our demands for government services.
If we are to expect government to pay for our health care when we cannot afford to, then we must allow government to manage the factors which affect the cost of our health care. Including the quality of that care itself. And including many ordinary things in life that may, statistically, lead to health problems.
If we expect government to keep us safe, then we must allow government the right to manage the factors which affect our safety. Again, including many ordinary things that we used to take for granted.
If we expect government to keep us employed, then we must permit government to manage the employment decisions of those who would hire us. Even if it means we pay more for everything.
If we want government to insure that we have a comfortable income regardless of our own efforts, then we must indulge the government when it finds the money the only place it can -- from us.
Because government today only understands one management method -- regulation and control. And it has only one resource -- us. The more we ask of it, the more of our freedom it must remove to manage those services.
There are some things which the government must do, of course. And there are still more things that it could do well, under proper control. And those things will have a manageable cost in freedom. But if we look around us today, at some of the truly huge fiscal and constitutional issues that we argue about, it is not difficult to discern that they originate with our demands for government services.
If we want the freedom we were granted by our Founders, then we have to ask less of the government and of the other guy, and expect more of ourselves. It's the only way.
Presumption of InnocenceThe doctrine of Presumption of Innocence, supposedly at the very heart of the American system of justice, is not found in the Constitution.
Which is kind of a shame, because it is another important foundation of our cultural and legal identity that is being steadily eroded, in the interest of governmental convenience.
The concept of the presumption of innocence had its roots in the Common Law, long established in Britain and thence in America. Besides being a part of the environment of justice in which our Founders lived, the concept is central to the ideas of Freedom and Due Process of Law. In addition, the common sense of any reasonably enlightened people must dictate that a person accused is innocent until proven guilty, just as much as they would believe that the other rights of defendants must be reasonably protected. Those protections for the accused were incorporated by the Founders into the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Articles of the Bill of Rights, and could not have been of any import had there not first been a presumption of innocence.
A close parallel to the presumption of innocence is the presumption of freedom -- that freedom is not something the government rations to the people, but rather a birthright the people own in its entirety, to be loaned back in small parts to the government with their knowing consent. The presumption of freedom is guaranteed by the Ninth and Tenth Articles of the Bill of Rights -- too often made light of today, but of key importance to the concept of individual Liberty. Those Articles demand, in essence, that unless specifically stated to the contrary by the Constitution, the people shall be presumed to own every freedom, as well as the power of self-determination.
If a citizen cannot be presumed innocent until proven guilty, he likewise will not be presumed to have freedom without an argument over his right to that freedom. At that juncture, both freedom and innocence yield to the convenience of government.
In both cases, the opposite must prevail if we are to call ourselves Americans.
Due Process of LawWhen we feel our freedoms have been infringed, that we have not been allowed equal opportunity by the law, or have had our property violated, our recourse is to our system of justice, under which those we accuse are to be presumed innocent unless we prove them guilty, and in which we are to receive the same hearing that any other citizen would.
The justice system itself is ruled by the law, just as we are … laws in whose promulgation we are to have a hand by dint of our voice in governance.
The fair and full hearing, based upon the presumption of innocence, in a court or other jurisdiction ruled by the established law of the people, in accord with the foundational concepts of the Constitution, and in harmony with previous practices and decisions, constitutes our idea of Due Process of Law.
When an American has his freedom suspended, his property attached or seized, or his opportunities deliberately restricted, without having received such Due Process, he has been deprived of his citizenship.
Where such judicial or administrative review is less thorough than might have been accorded another person, where it is out of harmony with the findings in similar cases, where it presumes guilt, or where it is based upon law or concepts far removed from the will of the people or the Constitution, that American has been violated just as surely as if he had woken up in Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany.
Due Process is admittedly time consuming and not perfect. The concept of a full hearing for any accusation has been turned into a free-for-all of idiocy in our civil court system, while busy criminal court schedules and other exigencies have seriously eaten into the dual concept of Due Process and justice in that environment.
Nonetheless we cannot afford to abandon the rigid concept of Due Process of Law. It's all that stands between us and the ugly world of totalitarianism.
Local GovernanceWe decry today the apathy that seems to infect our electorate -- we're lucky if we can draw half of our eligible voters to the polls even for a presidential election. Of those voters, one can only surmise -- pessimistically -- what portion truly understand the positions of the candidate for whom they have voted, and the possible ramifications of those positions. Or how many even believe the candidate.
Ask one and you will have asked them all … Why do you not bother to fully exercise the one right you have to really make your voice heard? The answer will inevitably be that it makes no difference. Whomever is sent to Washington will meld with the status quo, and nothing will change. Meanwhile nonsensical, intrusive and unresponsive government will continue for the majority, seemingly reflecting the will of a radical minority who have found the key to disproportional representation. And probably bother to vote.
This was not the picture when our Union was first formed under the Articles of Confederation. The demand for local governance was so strong that the issue of State versus Federal power almost sank the efforts to ratify a new Constitution. To abide those strenuous reservations, the Tenth Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights, gradually to be forgotten. The rights remaining to local governance were sufficiently in doubt in 1861 for the Confederate States to carefully reword their Constitution to recognize State individuality.
The reasons for this urge are obvious. In a country where the people are free to live as and where they choose, local needs become unique, as do local customs and even public mores. Where true communities still exist, the perspectives of the people tend -- not absolutely but largely -- to come together. They set what rules are needed for their communities in accordance with their Common Sense and values.
Communities that can and do do this not only build their communal bond, but become a truly free people in the process. That effort can be quickly stymied by a higher order of government set on making one set of values fit all, whether or not the need for such values on a national level is truly relevant.
The logical path -- one that should satisfy both the needs of the community and the needs of national bonding -- is that decisions of governance always be made on the lowest possible level, and that the only nationally mandated guidelines for these decisions be the foundational principles inherent in the Constitution, without reconstruction designed to support Federal intrusion.
To fully implement all the possible protections of this concept could involve completely redrafting our Constitution. That is not a good idea. Better would simply be to put in office candidates who firmly and demonstrably support the concept of governance at the lowest level.
Free people make their own decisions and live by the outcomes.
National FocusWe now come full circle.
Our nation today is over-governed at the national level and is quickly breaking apart into interest groups of every stripe (and color). We are one nation pretty much in name only.
Through a serious discussion of what truly constitutes the American culture -- the foregoing eleven Foundations -- we have asked the visitor to at least temporarily break away from the America of the end of the twentieth century, and consider for a moment where we began our journey as a nation.
We have talked about the Faith in Providence and the commonly held morality that must ground everything that follows as a nation to prevent the rule of whim.
We have looked at the idea of common sense -- admittedly almost a side trip into whimsy, as obvious as the concept should be -- ruling in place of seeming senselessness and frequent hypocrisy.
We have studied the most basic of American freedoms, many of which were unique concepts at the time of our founding. Equal freedom for all; an unchallenged right to one's own property, honestly gained; a right to be heard by one's government with the same voice as any other citizen; the right to fair treatment under the law, where one is innocent until proven guilty.
And perhaps one of the most important principles in a nation dedicated to self-determination, a principle which is invaluable to the concept of equal representation, the right to local governance. The expectation that civil decisions which will likely affect any or all of the other freedoms we enjoy be made at the lowest practical level of government -- that closest to the people.
But there is one and only one ultimate point to debating and refining our country's foundations, and that is to again become truly one America. Not a nation of bickering special interest groups which cannot agree even on the most basic freedoms. But one that has come to understand that we can be both different and united, as we were for our first two hundred years.
There can be no America without a properly sized and empowered central government. Neither can there be an America without unity. Unity will come when we agree on the very basics that have made this a great nation, and then leave each other in peace.
(For additional discussion of the concept of National Focus, see the Editorial entitled Striving For One America.)
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