On July 3, 1776 – the Second Continental Congress having the day before enacted a resolution declaring the political ties between United Colonies and Great Britain “totally dissolved” – an excited John Adams, a delegate from the Massachusetts Bay colony wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, then living with their children outside Boston.
Adams was a dour man, given to bouts of depression and known for his generally bleak outlook. He was also one of the finest legal minds in North America, having won an acquittal for the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre by appealing to the supremacy of the law over the emotion of the moment.
He was, as the other continental delegates learned, not a man to be trifled with. The enthusiasm and hope he expressed in his letter to his wife was, therefore, an uncharacteristic expression of emotion from the man whom no less than Thomas Jefferson would refer to as “The Colossus of Independence.”
The breaking of ties with Great Britain should, Adams wrote, be regarded as the most memorable moment “in the history of America.” It should – and he wrote he believed it would be celebrated by the generations of Americans who would follow – “as the great anniversary festival” to be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
It’s easy to see how right he was, now, 250 years later. At the time Adams wrote to Abigail, victory on the field of battle was less than assured. Washington’s Army was on those very days being chased out of New York by the British, splitting the colonies in two. If captured by troops loyal to the crown, any man who had affixed his name to Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration presumed he would be hanged without trial for being a traitor to the King.
Indeed, as history records, several signers who pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” in pursuit of American independence were called upon to pay that bill, in part or in full. Their cause was not an easy one for, in winning, they changed the face of the world.
The enormity of what the founders accomplished is discussed too little today. Not only did they eventually defeat on the battlefield what was then the greatest military power on Earth, they did it through careful, precise, one might even say legal means. Washington was originally sent into the field as a defensive measure, following the British attempt to seize stores and munitions hidden by the colonists at Lexington and Concord. After July 2, 1776, a resolution having been approved by what then passed for the national legislature, the colonists who had declared themselves a new nation believed they were free to pursue a course of their own under a government of their own.
A British friend of mine of longstanding likes to describe the American War for Independence thusly:
A group of Englishmen raised an army to defend their rights as Englishmen against the tyranny imposed by a Hanoverian King using Hession mercenaries to fight his battles for him.
He has a point. The good guys were the ones defending the English notion of rights and the social contract as explained by the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment like John Locke against the tyranny of rules imposed by the old order as represented by King George III, whose father – King George II – was the last British monarch to have been born outside the United Kingdom.
You see this clearly when you parse the Declaration. Everyone knows the familiar phrase like “When in the course of human events,” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and, most famously, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Too few people these days read the whole thing and understand what it means, which, while the pundit class repeatedly points to the so-called current dangers imperiling American Democracy, might be reassuring.
The Declaration lays out the case for things we now take for granted, like the idea of natural law coming from what Mr. Jefferson ascribed as “Nature’s God.” We take from this the idea that some things are empirically true and “self-evident” without requiring documentation or experimentation to prove it so. It was, for its time, a bold assertion that leads directly to the idea mankind has – or had been given – certain rights which did not come from government and which government could not lawfully, morally prevent us from exercising.
These rights, some of which are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the essential building blocks of the world we live in today. We regard those nations who follow us in this regard as friends and allies while those who oppose the idea these rights are free, not given by government (and, therefore, potentially taken away by them) as those which should be regarded warily.
In part, the Declaration leads like an indictment. It is a bill of particulars, and in this, we may see Adams’ influence on Jefferson, describing just how it is “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”
As the Declaration puts it, governments “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” which King George III lost by becoming a tyrant. How did he do this? Let’s look at a few, as put forward in the document:
These are just some of the charges. They are resolute in their presentation and Mr. Jefferson and the other members of the Second Continental Congress were no less firm in explaining the method of redress:
“(W)henever 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.
Then they went further:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown, 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.”
In sum, the King, having broken “the law of nature and nature’s God” abdicated his authority to lead. It was, therefore, necessary to replace him, not just with another monarch but with a new system grounded in the idea that power ultimately resides with the people. That’s the revolution. It’s not just that America broke free from Great Britain but that all people had – or were destined to in the fullness of time – break free of the rule of those governments whose legitimacy could be contested because they had become tyrannical. That’s what Adams called upon us to revere and solemnize and what we celebrate today.
In his Gettysburg Address at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln pointed out that the United States was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” “Now,” he continued, “we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Thankfully, we are not in a civil war today – and, one hopes, never will be again. We are, however, in a battle for the soul of our country.
The fight today is not about what we want to achieve but, rather, how best to achieve it. Both sides claim to want a society in which people can live fulfilling lives. Both claim to adhere to the vision outlined in the Declaration of Independence and supported by our Constitution. Yet neither side has any sense of common ground on which to move forward.
Put generally, one side envisions improving our society through a highly involved federal government that provides greater support and greater regulation meant to benefit everyone. The other side believes that traditional American ideals of individual freedom, limited government, and free markets will lead to a better life for all.
Those who want to restrict government power and reach are depicted as greedy and without compassion for the disenfranchised and less fortunate. Those who desire larger government aid and controls are seen as ignorant of history and human nature. One side is judged heartless; the other, brainless. These polarizing caricatures quash any desire for a real understanding of how we as one nation can move forward.
The 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis – a miscarriage of justice – was the spark that led to the popularization of critical race theory, riots and looting in many cities, and the tearing down of statues of great Americans. It also gave impetus to the 1619 Project’s skewed framing of the American Founding. All these developments have widened our divide. So has teaching young people in colleges, universities, and K-12 schools that America is systemically racist, which has angered parents across the country.
In fact, ever since the Vietnam War era, civic education has been under attack, beginning at the university level and now at the K-12 level. To make sure our nation, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” can endure, we must rise to the challenge.
The good news is that most Americans believe in the vision of our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and that all are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Over the years, that vision has united us as one people, even through the most divisive debates, and has attracted millions to America’s shores.
It is that unifying vision that must be taught to our young people. After all, it will fall on their shoulders to continue the progress previous generations have made. Frederick Douglass, during the Civil War era, and Martin Luther King Jr., during the civil rights era, both invoked that vision in advocating for a colorblind society and fair play for all. We have come a long way toward achieving those goals. But teaching our young people through a lens of racial grievance and Marxist historicism corrupts and reverses that progress.
This miseducation must stop. Fortunately, now that parents and the public are becoming aware of and alarmed about the situation, change is possible. The solution is clear: it is to reintroduce and reinvigorate the teaching of both our founding principles and a well-rounded and unbiased American history in our classrooms. While not complicated, this solution will require hard work and financial support.
If our country is to endure, every child should be assured of a high-quality education. Not everyone needs to go to college to lead a successful life. But every child needs, and is entitled to, a quality K-12 learning experience. That should include a solid civics education in our founding principles and our form of government, as well as our history of progress toward achieving the promise of our Declaration. Children should learn about the American culture of freedom and opportunity that enables anyone to achieve success and has made our country a magnet for people from around the world. Together, we need to continue working to achieve the vision of our Declaration.
The Magna Carta created the moral and political premise that, in many ways, the American founding was built upon. The Magna Carta came to represent the idea that the people can assert their rights against an oppressive ruler and that the power of government can be limited to protect those rights. These concepts were clearly foundational and central to both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
First, a bit of history about Magna Carta — its full name was Magna Carta Libertatum which is Latin for “Great Charter of Freedoms.” But, it became commonly known as simply Magna Carta or the “Great Charter.” It was written in 1215 to settle an intense political dispute between King John of England and a group of barons who were challenging King John’s absolute right to rule. The terms of the charter were negotiated over the course of three days. When they reached agreement on June 15, 1215, the document was signed by the King and the barons at Runnymede outside of London.
This was a time when kings asserted the absolute right to rule, and that they were above the law and that they were personally chosen to rule by God. At this time, even questioning the King’s power was both treasonous and an act of defiance to God himself.
The Magna Carta limited the king’s absolute claim to power. It provided a certain level of religious freedom or independence from the crown, protected barons from illegal imprisonment, and limited the taxes that the crown could impose upon the barons, among other things. It did not champion the rights of every Englishman. It only focused on the rights of the barons. But, it was an important start to the concept of limiting the absolute power of governments or kings that claimed God had given them the absolute right to rule.
Magna Carta is important because of the principles it stood for and the ideas that it came to represent — not because it lasted a long time. Shortly after signing the charter, King John asked Pope Innocent III to annul it, which he did. Then there was a war known as the First Barons War that began in 1215 and finally ended in 1217.
After King John died in 1216, the regency government of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III reissued the Magna Carta, after having stripped out some of its more “radical” elements in hopes of reuniting the country under his rule. That didn’t work, but at the end of the war in 1217, the original Magna Carta’s terms became the foundation for a peace treaty.
Over the following decades and centuries, the importance of Magna Carta ebbed and flowed depending on the current king’s view of it and his willingness to accept it, or abide by it its concepts. But subsequent kings further legitimized or confirmed the principles of Magna Carta — often in exchange for some grant of new taxes or some other political concession. But the path towards limited government and individual rights had been planted and continued to grow.
Despite its relatively short political life as a working document, Magna Carta created and memorialized the idea that the people had the right to limit the powers of their government and they had the right to protect basic and important rights. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, the political lore of Magna Carta grew and the idea of an ancient source for individual rights became cemented in the minds of reform-minded political scholars, thinkers and writers.
Obviously, it wasn’t as written in 1215 a document that protected the rights of the average Englishman. It only protected English barons. But the concepts of individual rights and the limitations of governmental power had grown and were starting to mature. Magna Carta was the seed of those powerful concepts of freedom and constitutionally limited government. By the 17th and 18th Centuries, those arguing for reforms and greater individual rights and protections used Magna Carta as their foundation. These ideas are at the very center of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
As English settlers came to the shores of North America, they brought with them charters under the authority of the King. The Virginia Charter of 1606 promised the English settlers all the same “liberties, franchises and immunities” as people born in England. The Massachusetts Bay Company charter acknowledged the rights of the settlers to be treated as “free and natural subjects.”
In 1687, William Penn, an early American leader, who had at one point been imprisoned in the Tower of London for his political and religious views, published a pamphlet on freedom and religious liberty that included a copy of the Magna Carta and discussed it as a source of fundamental law. American scholars began to see Magna Carta as the source of their guaranteed rights of trial by jury and habeas corpus (which prevented a king from simply locking up his enemies without charges or due process). While that isn’t necessarily correct history, it is part of the growth of the seed of freedom and liberty that Magna Carta planted.
By July 4, 1776, the idea that government could, and should be, limited by the consent of its citizens and that government must protect individual rights was widely seen as springing forth from Magna Carta. The beautiful and important words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration spring from the fertile soil of Magna Carta:
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.
Obviously, Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of liberty and freedom had developed a great deal since Magna Carta was penned in 1215. But, it is impossible to read Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and not see the common DNA.
When the Founders debated, drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution, it is also clear they were creating a set of rules and procedures to limit and check the power of government and to guarantee basic, individual rights.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” is a concept that comes from Magna Carta. Our constitutional guarantees of “a speedy trial” as found in the Sixth Amendment are also founded in the political thought that grew from Magna Carta. The Constitution’s guarantee of the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” (Art.1, Sec. 9) is also a concept that grew from Magna Carta.
Even the phrase “the law of the land” comes from Magna Carta’s history. And now we use that phrase in the United States to describe our Constitution which we proudly label “the law of the land.”
To this day, Magna Carta is an important symbol of liberty in both England and the United States.
The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are in my estimation the two most important and influential political documents ever written. What they did to provide promote and protect the freedom, opportunity and security of the average person is almost impossible to overstate. As British Prime Minister William Gladstone said in 1878, “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
I believe Gladstone was correct. But, Magna Carta was an important development in political thought and understanding about government power and individual rights. It is difficult to imagine the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution without the foundational elements provided by Magna Carta.
Between June 24 and July 22, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a series of speeches on the China challenge. In mid-July — after the national security adviser’s and FBI director’s speeches but before the attorney general’s and secretary of state’s speeches — the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights released a draft report.
The report examines the implications of the American Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the place of human rights in American foreign policy. Focusing on principles rather than concrete policy controversies, the report provoked considerably more partisan rancor than the series of speeches by high-ranking administration officials about the need for the nation to address the Communist Party of China’s resolute efforts to marshal its dictatorial powers to undercut American interests and transform world order.
Perhaps the relatively restrained reception of the four speeches is a good sign: It may suggest an emerging national consensus about the urgency of the China challenge. Yet awareness of a daunting problem does not guarantee the capacity to deal with it effectively. The controversy over the commission’s report — indeed, the indignation and scorn directed by many politicians, pundits, professors, and NGOs at the very idea of allocating taxpayer dollars to regrounding U.S. diplomacy in America’s founding principles and constitutional responsibilities — reflects the nation’s disunity, a disunity that thwarts the planning and implementation of foreign policy.
Understanding the nation’s founding principles along with its governing structures and its international obligations is crucial to developing a prudent appreciation of the nation’s vital interests and the practicable means for achieving them. In a time of severe political polarization, moreover, such understanding can contribute to the reinvigoration of the social cohesion and political consensus, the civic concord, on which developing and executing a demanding foreign policy has always depended.
The administration’s recent series of speeches about China stresses the connection between governing ideas and foreign policy, for China as well as for the United States.
In his June 24 speech at the Arizona Commerce Authority in Phoenix, O’Brien ascribed “the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s” — the failure “to understand the nature of the Chinese Communist Party” — to the refusal to “pay heed to the CCP’s ideology.” The CCP’s ruthless indoctrination of its own people and promulgation of deceitful propaganda abroad, along with its purchasing and stealing of personal data about Americans and hundreds of millions around the world, flows from communist convictions: “Under communism, individuals are merely a means to be used toward the achievement of the ends of the collective nation state,” said O’Brien. “Thus, individuals can be easily sacrificed for the nation state’s goals.” In contrast, the United States, “will stay true to our principles — especially freedom of speech — which stand in stark contrast to the Marxist-Leninist ideology embraced by the CCP… and above all, continue to proclaim that all women and men are entitled by right of God to liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In his July 7 remarks at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Wray focused on the threat posed by China’s counterintelligence operations and economic espionage. American citizens, according to Wray, “are the victims of what amounts to Chinese theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.” By means of a “whole-of-state effort,” China uses technology to steal personal and corporate data “to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary.” Because communism erases the distinction between government and party, public and private, and civilian and military, the CCP can concentrate prodigious resources to exploit U.S. freedom and openness to erode American competitiveness and prosperity. The United States, maintained Wray, must redouble its commitment to enforcing criminal laws and upholding international norms: “The FBI and our partners throughout the U.S. government will hold China accountable and protect our nation’s innovation, ideas, and way of life — with the help and vigilance of the American people.”
In his July 17 speech in Michigan at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, Barr summarized the predatory commercial practices by which China has cornered markets, induced economic dependence, and transformed the international order to advance its hegemonic interests. In particular, Barr emphasized that Beijing has impelled American enterprises to toe China’s party line. Hollywood alters the content of its films to avoid offending the CCP. Apple removed a news app from the phones it sells in China because of CCP displeasure over the app’s coverage of the Hong Kong democracy protests. Under pressure from Chinese influence campaigns threatening the loss of access to China’s enormous markets, American business leaders of all sorts “put a ‘friendly face’ on pro-regime policies.” And American higher education and research institutions face, and in many cases have succumbed to, China’s determined efforts “to infiltrate, censor, or co-opt.” To counter the China challenge, Barr calls on corporate and academic leaders to appreciate “that what allowed them to succeed in the first place was the American free enterprise system, the rule of law, and the security afforded by America’s economic, technological, and military strength.”
In his July 22 capstone speech at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California, Pompeo distilled the China challenge: “China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else.” Stressing that America’s quarrel is with the Chinese Communist Party, which governs dictatorially, and not with the Chinese people, whose human rights the CCP systematically violates, Pompeo maintained that the United States must change China’s behavior. To do so the U.S. must fully understand Chinese communism, which drives the regime’s quest for global hegemony. To be sure, “the only way to truly change communist China is to act not on the basis of what Chinese leaders say, but how they behave.” But how Beijing behaves becomes intelligible in light of what the CCP says at party gatherings and in official documents about the imperatives for totalitarian rule at home and the establishment beyond China’s borders of a worldwide tributary system with Beijing at the center. Because of China’s hegemonic ambition, formidable economic power, and unremitting military buildup, Pompeo asserted, “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time, and America is perfectly positioned to lead it because our founding principles give us that opportunity.”
But will we seize that opportunity? Can an angry and divided nation draw on its founding principles and constitutional traditions, as the secretary of state asked the Commission on Unalienable Rights to do? Can citizens across the political spectrum take pride in, preserve, and carry forward America’s great achievements in respecting the nation’s founding principles while learning from the country’s flagrant deviations from them? Can people throughout the nation recover the conviction that the practice of American constitutional government and the belief that inspires it — that all are by nature free and equal — provide the common ground on which citizens of diverse persuasions can air their differences, accommodate competing perspectives, make their cases, and instruct and be instructed, and so rededicate themselves to the shared enterprise of self-government?
To rise to the China challenge, we must.
I remember this one teacher. To me, he was the greatest teacher, a real sage of my time. He had such wisdom. We were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and he walked over. Mr. Lasswell was his name….He said:
“I’ve been listening to you boys and girls recite the Pledge of Allegiance all semester and it seems as though it is becoming monotonous to you. If I may, may I recite it and try to explain to you the meaning of each word:
I – me, an individual, a committee of one.
PLEDGE – dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity.
ALLEGIANCE – my love and my devotion.
TO THE FLAG – our standard, Old Glory, a symbol of freedom. Wherever she waves, there is respect because your loyalty has given her dignity that shouts freedom is everybody’s job.
OF THE UNITED – that means that we have all come together.
STATES OF AMERICA – individual communities that have united into [our] great states. . . individual communities with pride and dignity and purpose, all divided with imaginary boundaries, yet united to a common purpose, and that’s love for country.
AND TO THE REPUBLIC – a state in which sovereign power is invested in representatives chosen by the people to govern. And government is the people and it’s from the people to the leaders, not from the leaders to the people.
FOR WHICH IT STANDS.
ONE NATION – meaning, so blessed by God.
INDIVISIBLE – incapable of being divided.
WITH LIBERTY – which is freedom and the right of power to live one’s own life without threats or fear or some sort of retaliation.
AND JUSTICE – the principle or quality of dealing fairly with others.
FOR ALL – which means it’s as much your country as it is mine.”
Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country and two words have been added to the Pledge of Allegiance – “under God”.
Wouldn’t it be a pity if someone said, “That’s a prayer” and that would be eliminated from schools, too?
This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
The Declaration of Independence served a dual function at the momentous occasion of its adoption, July 4, 1776. The first was that it was the issuance of a statement of political independence containing within it a rational defense of our dramatic break with the government of Great Britain and its unaccountable king. The second, however, was the annunciation of the principles animating that declaration. According to the Founders, it was the violation of these principles that justified separation; their defense demanded the birth of a new nation.
These principles are outlined in the document’s most famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights to life and to liberty suggest the autonomy of the individual, whereas the statement that men are created equal highlights the universal dignity of all. The dynamic tension between these two principles, liberty and equality, underlies the ongoing left-right dialectic that has characterized American politics from the beginning. For this reason, it may be easy to overlook the last phrase in this statement, “the pursuit of Happiness.” It reads to modern eyes, perhaps, like a poetic after thought to the weightier philosophical statements that precede it. Yet it is in the pursuit of happiness that we are called upon to exercise the virtues needed to weave the fabric of a nation.
It is the role of virtue in realizing happiness through community — especially a community of free and equal citizens — that conservatism should remind us of today.
What is virtue? Before offering an answer, it is worth noting that it is a term that exists in our moral vocabulary today largely as an artifact of classical literature and our Christian heritage — rather like a poetical term sapped of substantive meaning. We think of moral questions today predominantly in deontological or consequentialist terms, rather than in terms of the virtues. Deontological ethics holds that an action is right or wrong depending on whether it conforms to some rule or maxim (“It is always wrong to do X,” “It is my duty to do Y.”). Consequentialism, by contrast, holds that we should evaluate an action based on its outcomes or consequences. In the political sphere, we often waver between these two, incompatible approaches to moral questions.
Take just about any debate in the realm of policy. The right to own a firearm or the right to health care is often met with arguments about why such alleged rights may or may not be practical. The right to bear arms makes it too easy for bad actors to buy guns; universal health care is too expensive or will have other harmful consequences, etc. Some oppose abortion on the basis of the right to life for unborn children, whereas opponents object with practical arguments about the difficulty of raising children in certain conditions. These disagreements, however legitimate, leave us speaking conflicting moral languages that offer no path to resolution. More importantly, both moral languages overlook the importance of moral character, which is what yields meaningful happiness and establishes the basis of flourishing community.
The virtues are habits of moral character. In the classical tradition, these include such qualities as fortitude or courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. The Christian tradition adds the “theological virtues:” faith, hope, and charity (love). We might easily add qualities such as honor, nobility, fairness, equanimity, and wisdom (the cornerstone of the good life, according to Aristotle). According to the tradition of virtue ethics, we should aspire to cultivate these habits, which conduce to lives of human flourishing, rather than basing our actions on rules or consequences.
This classical understanding informed the founding of the United States. Though the empirical orientation of the Enlightenment had much to do with setting us on a course away from virtue as the ground of morality, the founding fathers nevertheless recognized the indispensability of moral virtue in securing the project of liberty, representative government, and the pursuit of happiness. As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Or Thomas Jefferson: “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” Or, finally, George Washington: “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists … an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”
This is not to downplay the glaring vices present in American society at the founding. The point is that the Founders were at least minimally aware of the vital role virtue plays in establishing a political society capable of securing individual liberty and the common good. Whence the motivation for John Adams’ saying: “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
American society today has reaped the benefits of a prosperous economy aided by a political system that is the legacy of previous generations of Americans bound by more than the pursuit of riches. Indeed, the political liberalism of the Enlightenment has had much to do with the quest for a more egalitarian society in America, rooted in the dignity of the individual. However, the moral basis not merely of the Founding but also many of the great periods of moral progress in our history since the Founding can be traced to a religious consciousness that has stirred popular demands for social reforms, expressed through a moral language preserved by a Christian culture far older than classical liberalism.
Examples of this include the Abolitionist Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. William Lloyd Garrison, apart from Frederick Douglass perhaps the most well-remembered figure of the late abolitionist movement, might be described as less orthodoxly Christian than some of his peers in the movement. Yet, he could not have been more Christian in the framing of his moral arguments against slavery and the institutions that abided it, decrying both South and North in the years preceding the Civil War for their complicity:
The reason why the South rules, and the North falls prostrate in servile terror, is simply this: with the South, the preservation of slavery is paramount to all other considerations above party success, denominational unity, pecuniary interest, legal integrity, and constitutional obligation. With the North, the preservation of the Union is placed above all other things-above honor, justice, freedom, integrity of soul, the Decalogue and the Golden Rule-the infinite God himself.
Such language leans heavily upon conceptions of virtue harvested from Christian ethical teachings. Similarly, the sermons of Quaker minister and women’s rights activist Lucretia Mottemphasized the ethical substance of New Testament teachings against dogmatic interpretations that justified the subjugation of women, emphasizing religious behavior over rigidity of doctrine.
The nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., should be understood as the application not only of the methodology of Gandhi but also the moral substance of the Gospels. “Christian love” demanded more than a belief in equality. One of the most important and distinguishing elements of nonviolence, according to Reverend King, was that it “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.” Love was not only the preeminent value but also the preeminent virtue of the Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. The embrace of love as a virtue required the embrace of attendant virtues such as patience, courage, forgiveness, humility, and the suite of moral attributes that lent such ethical force to the work of King and those who followed his moral path.
If the importance of virtue is evident in great social movements it is also visible in the ideational edifice of America’s long-standing institutions. The United States Armed Forces is not merely as a functional organization that safeguards our national security, it is also, at its best, an institution that models and cultivates in its soldiers many of the virtues that we associate with what is most admirable in the American character. “The Army Values” lists seven key virtues that soldiers are trained to adhere to: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. In a similar way, the judicial oath taken by every judge or justice of the United States requires that they “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and the rich,” and to do so “faithfully and impartially,” clearly implying the virtues of faithfulness and impartiality as necessary to the moral character of a proper judge or justice. Even the traditional etiquette of reference that attends the addressing of members of congress (‘the honorable senator…’) expresses the hope that our elected officials possess, or should be held accountable to, the virtue of honor.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that virtue alone serves as the enforcer of all social contract and civic obligation. There are practical arguments that may justify the existence of our institutions, and there are rules, more or less reasonable, that might compel certain behavior from individuals or groups. But if the inward motivation to act in accordance with these rules or to seek the common good through participation in these institutions is lacking, what prevents any of us from subverting our institutions and social relationships for our own gain or becoming altogether alienated from them and one another?
The institution of marriage requires its participants to practice the virtues of selflessness and fidelity in order for it to be sustained. To be a proper friend, one must exhibit the qualities of understanding, patience, and helpfulness. To be a good parent, educator, or really anyone in a position of authority, one must be temperate, fair-minded, and balanced. To be a good student, employee, or soldier, one should be humble and coachable. To be a good leader, one ought to have courage, integrity, and, perhaps, even nobility.
Virtue, as opposed to legal compulsion or mere rationality, forms the basis of genuine interpersonal and social trust. The more we are able to see in and demonstrate for each other those habits of character necessary for flourishing, the more we find ourselves able (as both a reflection of our own virtues and those of our fellows) to collaborate with others, bear with each other’s faults, accept each other’s legitimate authority, and refrain from doing one another harm, whether out of fear, contempt or ambition.
Individual virtue breeds communal virtue, and vice versa, making virtue the great nourisher of our social fabric. If virtue seems to be vanishing from our social, political, and cultural spheres — if it is no longer something that we even pretend to demand of our politicians — this may be because virtue is vanishing from our moral language. At a moment when our political discourse is increasingly limited to our commitments to equality or individualism, and the policies they may seem to imply, American conservativism would do well to reintroduce the virtues into our moral vocabulary — those inward qualities of moral character have always formed the basis for our national excellence and our political community.
President Obama has dangerously surrendered the nation’s global leadership, but it can be ours again—if we choose his successor wisely.
By Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney • Wall Street Journal
In 1983, as the U.S. confronted the threat posed by the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan explained America’s unique responsibility. “It is up to us in our time,” he said, “to choose, and choose wisely, between the hard but necessary task of preserving peace and freedom, and the temptation to ignore our duty and blindly hope for the best while the enemies of freedom grow stronger day by day.” It was up to us then—as it is now—because we are the exceptional nation. America has guaranteed freedom, security and peace for a larger share of humanity than any other nation in all of history. There is no other like us. There never has been.
Born of the revolutionary ideal that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we were, first, an example to the world of freedom’s possibilities. During World War II, we became freedom’s defender, at the end of the Cold War, the world’s sole superpower. We did not seek the position. It is ours because of our ideals and our power, and the power of our ideals. As British historian Andrew Roberts has observed, “In the debate over whether America was born great, achieved greatness or had greatness thrust upon her, the only possible conclusion must be: all three.” Continue reading
HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY! LET FREEDOM RING!
“Taxation without representation!” was the battle cry in America’s 13 Colonies, which were forced to pay taxes to England’s King George III despite having no representation in the British Parliament. As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent in to quell the early movement toward rebellion. Repeated attempts by the Colonists to resolve the crisis without military conflict proved fruitless.
On June 11, 1776, the Colonies’ Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and formed a committee whose express purpose was drafting a document that would formally sever their ties with Great Britain. The committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson, who was considered the strongest and most eloquent writer, crafted the original draft document (as seen above). A total of 86 changes were made to his draft and the Continental Congress officially adopted the final version on July 4, 1776. Continue reading
John Adams’ letters from Philadelphia celebrate a nation conceived in liberty.
by Peter Roff
On the morning of July 3, 1776 John Adams, delegate to the Second Continental Congress from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote his wife Abigail:
“Yesterday the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony ‘that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all the other acts and things which other states may rightfully do.’ You will see in a few days a declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days.” Continue reading
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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. Continue reading
In a 2006 interview, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said the Constitution is “basically about” one word — “democracy” — that appears in neither that document nor the Declaration of Independence. Democracy is America’s way of allocating political power. The Constitution, however, was adopted to confine that power in order to “secure the blessings of” that which simultaneously justifies and limits democratic government — natural liberty.
The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected. Continue reading
“America needed to define its interests. . . . The first, foremost obligation is defense of the homeland. . . . (2) We are a trading nation. We need access to our markets and we need for those markets to be reasonably secured. . . . (3) We are a communicating nation which needs access to space, access to the seas. (4) We are a studying nation. Scholarship from science is important to the whole world and those people need to be able to be safe and secure in what they do. (5) Our hemisphere is quite important. If there’s not security in our hemisphere, there’s not security in the homeland. (6) Finally we are a nation with some conscience. It means alliances are extremely important when they’re based on a national interest. We have to have the ability to sustain our presence within those alliances.”
by Rick Henderson & William H. Mellor III*
November 1, 1995
In the introduction to The Almanac of American Politics 1996 , Michael Barone asserts that the election of 1994 signaled that the nation seems to be returning to a “Tocquevillian America, to something resembling the country that French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 and described in his Democracy in America. Tocqueville’s America was egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized, religious, property-loving, lightly governed.” Continue reading
From the beginning our nation was charged “with a responsibility to all mankind.”
by Scott L. Vanatter
In one of this first public speeches Ronald Reagan offered the Commencement Address at his alma mater, Eureka College. It was June 7, 1957, four months before Sputnik was put into orbit by the Soviet Union. America was in the height of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan was already speaking of American as a land of destiny, a theme he would return to again and again throughout his career as an elected official. “This is a land of destiny and our forefathers found their way here by some Divine system of selective service gathered here to fulfill a mission to advance man a further step in his climb from the swamps.”
He characterized the Founding Fathers as “a group of disturbed men,” who “met in the small Pennsylvania State House [as] they gathered to decide on a course of action. Behind the locked and guarded doors they debated for hours whether or not to sign the Declaration which had been presented for their consideration.”
So disturbed were they, that they risked all. “For hours the talk was treason and its price the headsman’s axe, the gallows and noose. The talk went on and decision was not forthcoming.” Continue reading
by Kathrine Kersten
On Nov. 6, Americans will vote in an election whose importance rivals that of the election of 1912 — 100 years ago. That election, which put Woodrow Wilson in the White House, ushered in the progressive movement, of which President Obama is the heir and today’s leader.
Progressivism views the roles of citizen and state very differently than our founding fathers did. The founders anchored the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in three principles. They believed that human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inherent in nature and human dignity, and preexist the state. They believed that government should be limited, and that its primary purpose is to protect these rights. Finally, they crafted our Constitution to disperse power and curb its abuse through mechanisms such as checks and balances, and federalism. Continue reading