Drawing freely from the Declaration of Independence and the passing scene, and dividing roughly by topic, I hold these truths — these American ideals — to be self-evident:
Individual Worth and Dignity
- That all men and women should be equal before human law, as they are equal before the law and mercy of God.
- That each human individually is endowed by the Creator, not by earthly government, with certain inalienable rights.
- That among these rights (it’s a partial list) are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is the fundamental American ideal: we should be free to live our lives according to our own individual senses of happiness, as far as that is compatible with a free society which credibly attempts to balance the competing, legitimate rights of all individuals and to defend itself from enemies foreign and domestic.
- That to secure these rights for all individuals, governments are instituted among humanity, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. (Unjust powers may or may not issue from the active consent of the governed.)
Real, Imperfect Heroes
- That those who conquered the obstacles necessary to arrive at these ideals in their hearts and minds, and worked to advance them by honorable means, should be remembered and revered for their efforts and successes – not condemned, cancelled, or erased because their reality fell short of their ideals.
- That these heroes and heroines and their work should not be written out of history because they were unable in their times and circumstances to satisfy a later generation’s sense of moral and civic perfection, or because history does not record them advocating a particular cause loudly enough to satisfy later partisans who never met or knew them.
Not every worthy battle can be fought and won at once. Not everyone is equipped to fight or even comprehend every battle. And some crucial battles cannot be fought until others are won, lest the earlier battles be lost.
We cannot plausibly demand ex post facto that historical figures be shining examples of a present stage of advancement, when they gave their all to achieve an earlier stage. If, in opposing the evils they could oppose, among the evils they saw, and advancing the good they envisioned, they did not see and fight and vanquish every evil which history has assigned to their time, or promote every good we claim for our own … well, neither will we in our time, in the eyes of proud future judges.
It Flowed from American Ideals
- That it was these and similar principles which eventually led more and more Americans to fight against racism, slavery, and other evils, before, during, and after our (first) Civil War.
For a long time, American principles were enshrined (not undermined) in the hearts of Americans at large, persistently taught (not ridiculed or deconstructed) in homes and classrooms, and extolled (not derided) in public settings far and wide. They were embodied in the Constitution of the United States, a founding national document which changed the world, yet also acknowledges its own imperfection and has seen numerous improvements by the formal will of the people.
(We did not originate most of our principles, but our discovered means of establishing principles of freedom in long-lasting civil government may be America’s greatest gift to the world so far, and that’s saying something. We also did not invent the evils found in past or present American society, notably including slavery and racism, which are common across ages and hemispheres – but each society must conquer them for itself.)
Individual Worth and Dignity Revisited
A crucial part of the American vision, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, is that inalienable rights and related responsibilities belong to individuals, not groups or tribes. This largely Western view grows from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which values (in theory if not always in practice) each person as a unique and valuable creation in the image of God. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father…. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:29-31).
So my list continues:
- That the victims of great and small injustices are individual persons, however numerous they may be or have been. Offenses are fundamentally against individual persons (fellow children of God!) – again, however numerous – not against classes.
- That injustice is done by persons (however numerous or few), not by all members of some broadly defined racial, economic, or other class containing those persons.
- That it is unjust and destructive to punish living individuals for historical wrongs in which they did not participate.
- That we must avoid victimizing innocent individuals in our efforts to offer individual victims some redress.
- That we must wisely, carefully, and persistently help the victims of injustice and their descendants to reject victimhood as a pillar of their identity (which only perpetuates the injustice), even as we labor to help them lift themselves.
I realize that this individual, American vision of justice clashes with trendy notions of social justice, which value group identity above the individual, but that’s a topic for another day.
To bind the lingering wounds of the past is profoundly difficult even now, a century and a half after the atrocities of formal, legalized slavery in America; after the slightly more recent horrors of Reconstruction (which itself was practically a holocaust); and in the wake of the ensuing century’s laundry list of intentional abuses we often summarize as Jim Crow. Just as former slave owners and carpetbaggers threw up barriers to this healing in the past, so there are factions in the present with vested economic and political interests in perpetuating the oppression and nurturing every possible division.
Neighbor, God, and Family
- That each human soul individually is morally obligated to lift suffering and needy individuals as wisely and effectively as we can, no matter the origins of their suffering and need (which may include historic oppression and a host of multigenerational ills).
- That this is a personal duty, for which we answer ultimately to God, not to government, political party, or torch-wielding mob.
- That government, though inarguably necessary in its legitimate roles, is a poor substitute for God and for families, and is evil when it attempts to supplant them.
In the present as in the past, God and family are the two great rivals which the hard Left and other tyrannical movements and philosophies most hate and most consistently seek to corrupt, coopt, and destroy.
Loving and Healing Our Country
There is much to love, beginning with its people, about every country I have visited, from Saint Lucia to then-Soviet Russia. But these American principles give us even more to love about the United States of America. Small wonder that people have flocked here from around the globe, for generations, to make a better life.
In our time, strident voices shout that Americans who embrace the ideals and principles I’ve listed here are racists, among other nasty things. To the contrary, these convictions and pursuits make us Americans – philosophically, not just legally or geographically. They have united a vast and diverse people, despite disagreement about many things. They can unite us again — if we still want them to.
Finally, I believe:
- That we can use American principles to find American solutions to our problems, arrived at from a love of our own and others’ welfare and freedom, not a lust for power – as a humane alternative to Leftist solutions and other species of tyranny, violence, and folly.
When I say I love my country – which I do – and when I salute the flag or stand for the national anthem, I honor these ideals; the countless people of all races and religions who have sacrificed mightily to pursue them, however imperfectly; and the high American calling of preserving and advancing them.
When others kneel instead, which is their right (unless they’re on the job and their employer says otherwise), it’s these ideals and good people, living and dead, whom I feel they defy and dishonor. Is it wrong to wonder if these discontented souls had enough wise teachers who knew and could tell them who these people in history really were, what they really did and against what opposition, and why they did it, and why it matters? In any case, these things can still be learned by any who will labor to know them.
The worthiest American project is to keep building what past generations started and advanced for us at immeasurable cost, to live our ideals ever more broadly and deeply. We cannot claim that we are or ever were the perfect embodiment of any ideal, but we must not take what past generations built for us and burn it down, figuratively or literally, in the historically-recurring delusion of replacing messy reality with an impossible paradise.
A quick survey, let alone deep study, of history reveals that the zealous, power-crazed pursuit of that illusory paradise routinely becomes a bloodbath and tends to settle to a condition which looks a lot like slavery. This is no surprise, because, despite their seductive words about liberation and justice, the leaders of such movements typically seek to wield comprehensive power over entire nations, not to advance the freedom and welfare of all individuals.
I believe that most or all of the views and ideals I’ve listed here are still matters of majority agreement in the United States of America. I hear them from people of every economic level and every ethnic, racial, and religious background – including harried, hardworking people who are now beginning to realize that in AD 2020 merely voting is not speaking loudly enough as citizens, and that they should find their own ways to stand and speak for American principles while they still can, despite the angry mob which is now hell-bent on silencing anyone caught in the act.
I could be wrong about it being a majority. We’ll know soon.
What Shall We Do?
Meanwhile, many people I know have been asking, What are we to do?
We’ll speak more of this. For now, this weekend brings the most American of holidays, Independence Day. It’s the 244th birthday of a great and good nation. I suggest we enjoy and celebrate that.
It wouldn’t hurt to find time to ponder and reaffirm these American principles in our hearts and minds. Those of us who believe in God will want to thank him – you don’t need me to say for what and whom – and to pray for his continued blessings and mercy on our troubled nation and world, and our troubled hearts and minds. We may want to ask him a more personal version of our common question: What am I to do?
Here are two readings which can help our pondering: the Declaration of Independence itself and President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. To my mind the latter is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the English language. You might try reading it aloud, despite the insufficient punctuation by modern standards. It’s well less than half the length of this blog post.
Let’s put off to another day, as much as we’re able, the anger and despair which seem to be the overarching temptations of our time.
Have a happy, hopeful Independence Day.
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2 thoughts on “American Ideals Will Endure”
Kevin Ostler says:
David, I admire your wisdom to see through the enormous social strata and increasing din of many forces and seize on the truth about freedom. However, I am even more impressed at your ability to articulate the truth so clearly. Thank you for sharing with us.
Jon Rodeback says:
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