I’ve been poking at these thoughts on why I love America for a while now. Once you see what they are, you’ll see why Constitution Day seems appropriate for posting them.
More broadly, this is either an especially good time or an unusually bad time for these reflections. We’re several weeks from a midterm election; those are never pretty. We’re two weeks into the Kneel for the National Anthem regular season. We’re in the throes of another nasty Supreme Court nomination battle. We’ve been watching — has it been forever yet? — the ongoing attempt to overthrow a duly elected President I heartily dislike by a bureaucratic coup I dislike even more. We’re seeing (still? again?) just how ugly our politics can get, when we’re more committed to obtaining political power over each other than we are to truth, justice, freedom, and the rule of law.
And yet I love my country. Here are some of my reasons. (They don’t have to be yours.)
George Washington could have been king. Powerful factions wanted him to be king. He said no and shamed them for proposing it.
After leading the rebel army in our Revolutionary War, he subsequently presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, of which more below. Later, as president, he still didn’t try to be king — though some of his opponents accused him of it. He conducted himself with a humility and a dignity that we might hope to see again someday.
Yes, I know he owned slaves. I despise slavery, no matter who is enslaving whom or how or why. But he didn’t create the institution, and I cannot see how he could have destroyed it in the short term and still left us a functioning government capable of defending itself against our jilted colonial masters, among other enemies. He did help to create a government and perpetuate a set of ideals which eventually — too late and too painfully — led to the abolition of American slavery.
The Declaration of Independence
So far as I know, no document in human history has so powerfully and plainly exposed the contrast between tyranny and freedom as the Declaration of Independence. It is a breathtaking statement of fundamental human rights and their source — which is God, if you ask me, but I’m willing to cast it in less religious terms, if you wish. It speaks of rights we have because we are human, not because government gave them to us.
Yes, I know that in most respects it is obviously false that “all men are created equal.” But one truth here is essential: we are to be equal before the law, no matter the circumstances of our lives or our birth. There should not be one set of laws (or the absence of law) for the ruling class, and another for the subjects.
Speaking of which, I am a citizen, not a subject, and I like us for that too.
Please note the end of the document, where its signers assert that freedom from tyrants is worth dying for — which some of them proved by doing it.
Articles I, II, and III of the United States Constitution
The first three articles of the Constitution implement a government embodying key principles which I treasure. One is the separation of powers, wherein enumerated legislative, executive, and judicial powers are given to separate branches of our government. The fundamental act of setting these three functions against each other has helped from the beginning (more or less successfully) to restrain the growth of tyranny in America.
Likewise the principle of federalism, according to which state and local governments are not merely branches of the national government, but separate governments. If I want or need something to change at the local level, I appeal to my local government, not to some massive federal bureaucracy which uniformly regulates every town and city in the entire nation. Even locally, change can be difficult — but at least it’s a practical possibility.
The 1787 Constitutional Convention
Of the many things I would say of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, one must suffice. Dozens of powerful, intelligent, influential men essentially locked themselves in a room for a Philadelphia summer, with their wildly divergent views as to good government, their fundamental disagreements on huge issues (especially slavery), their personal dislikes and differences, and their own and their states’ conflicting economic and political interests and ideologies . . . and created a government that was strong enough, internally conflicted enough (see above), and flexible enough to survive for at least the first 53 years of my lifetime and 176 years before that.
I am well aware that the original language counted a slave as three-fifths of a person. That was not fair or just, but it was a step up from simply considering them property, and this language was amended out of the Constitution long ago. In 1787 it was a necessary compromise, if we were to have a nation at all. Therefore it was a necessary step toward the abolition of slavery.
I also know that voting rights were not extended to women for another century and a half, give or take. But I am willing to honor the ideal and the people who established both it and a peaceful mechanism for pursuing it, even if that pursuit has sometimes been terribly slow.
The Ninth and Tenth Amendments
Short and too infrequently cited in our jurisprudence, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments declare that enumerating some rights does not deny the existence of others, and that the federal government’s powers are severely limited, with powers not explicitly granted being reserved to the states and the people.
We’re doing rather badly at both of these, I think. But again I honor the ideal. Together these amendments affirm that there are higher things than our national government, that its powers derive from the people, and that our rights issue from a source to which even a national government is subordinate.
Amendments I, XIII, XIV, XV, XIX, and XXI
I realize that I might be omitting your favorite amendment, and that, if I had spent more time in the judicial system, I might be listing several other amendments as my favorites. But here’s why these six amendments help me to love my country.
The First Amendment protects my freedoms of religion, assembly, speech, press, and petition — including my right to publish this blog post. Is any further explanation needed?
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. Slavery should never have happened anywhere at any time, but it is still quite common in the world, and I’m fairly certain that its absence has been the exception, not the rule, in human history. But this amendment ensures that slavery — as a legal institution — is absent here.
The Fourteenth Amendment extended the Bill of Rights’ limitations on the federal government to lower levels of government. Now they all have to respect freedom of religion, speech, etc., just as the federal government does.
The Fifteenth Amendment allows people of all races to vote.
The Nineteenth Amendment extended voting rights to women — which should have happened long before 1920, as noted, but at least it finally happened.
Progress toward a worthy ideal, and against the weight of politics, history, and culture, is often quite slow. But I don’t blame the Founders for not achieving or even conceiving every facet of every worthy ideal at once. Nor do I blame my favorite football team for not routing every opponent in the first minute after the opening kickoff.
The Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment — that is, Prohibition. I don’t drink alcohol, and my citing this amendment here has nothing to do with it. It’s here because I think it’s a wonderful thing that we repealed not just a law, but a constitutional amendment, when we discovered that it was doing more harm than good. We are often less wise than this, but this is a worthy example.
We Liberate, Not Conquer
No, I don’t claim that all our wars have been just and wise, or that they have been competently executed. I don’t claim that we dealt justly with Native American tribes. I don’t claim that our nation-building projects have been wildly successful. And I’m well aware (and much chagrined) that we have so often, in my lifetime, been an unfaithful ally and an unimposing enemy.
That said, our ideal is to liberate, not conquer. For example, after World War II we did not annex, as a conventional empire would have, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Japan, and a host of other countries. We defeated some, liberated the rest, buried our dead, helped our enemies put their nations back together on a civilized footing, built a few military bases for our mutual defense, and went home.
Likewise, South Korea and Kuwait, among others.
We don’t always get this right, but sometimes we live up to our ideal of freedom, not conquest.
What Tocqueville Said
A French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to the United States in the 1830s to see how our country worked — or more precisely, why our revolution had led to a relatively stable, free society, when any number of French revolutions hadn’t.
One of the things he noted was that, when there was a problem, a need, or even a natural disaster (we might add), Americans banded together to address it in free associations — churches, clubs, libraries, societies of all kinds — where the French turned directly to government. This large buffer of private civic activity between the people and their governments had quite a lot to do with preserving American freedom, he thought.
We’re struggling mightily with this, two and almost three centuries later, but I still love the ideal — hence I have called myself “a Tocqueville conservative.” To the extent that we still pursue and practice this ideal, it’s still working.
In Other Words, Freedom
I have seen physical beauty in numerous countries. The United States, Canada, Russia, Israel, and St. Lucia come to mind. I have found good people wherever I have gone, to say nothing of splendid cultural treasures. But in the modern era at least, the United States of America is the native land of human freedom. Even the people I have found elsewhere who are committed to political freedom have looked to us for inspiration and example. They have often been more willing to overlook our failures — and our warts — than we are.
In today’s list of reasons, freedom is my common thread. To me freedom — the greatest amount of personal freedom consistent with the rule of law and the existence of thriving communities — is the American ideal. However imperfectly we and others have pursued and embodied it in days, decades, and centuries past, and however much work we may yet have before us, a nation dedicated to freedom, with laws and governments crafted to preserve and enhance it, offering at least the hope that we may approach our American ideal more nearly over time — this attracts my love of country.
Which brings me to the last item on today’s list.
Abraham Lincoln and His Speeches
I love Mark Twain, among other American writers. But even he, as a writer, stands a little lower than Abraham Lincoln in my estimation. This is principally on the strength of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. Here are pieces of both.
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — . . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863)
“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. . . . If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which . . . He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, . . . still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865)
I am loath to write more after quoting so much Lincoln, but in case you missed it . . .
I love my country, flawed though it is — flawed as it has always been and surely always will be. I intend to keep loving it for the ideals it embodies so earnestly, yet so imperfectly. I intend to love it no matter who is in the White House and who controls Congress; whatever direction the US Supreme Court may take in the next term; whatever stance my state’s voters may adopt on medicinal marijuana and using gas taxes to fund public schools. I will keeping loving it despite the fact that some now insist that such declarations of love for an imperfect nation are hate speech. (I happen to love the English language too, despite the abominations we perpetrate on it.)
And should my country — God forbid! — ever altogether cease to strive for and embody these things for which I love it, I shall yet love it for what it was, for what it tried to be, for what it might and should and could have become.
Happy Constitution Day!