Happy 244th, America! The world wouldn’t be the same without you. It would be poorer, less ethical, less stable, and less humane had you never come into existence. Whatever America’s faults, her successes outweigh them all.
As protestors around the United States tear down statues, brutally beat rosary warriors, attack neighborhoods, threaten the destruction of churches, loot mom-and-pop stores, and place guillotines in front of the homes of the wealthy, it is all starting to feel like a scene from The Killing Fields or from The Dark Knight Returns.
Taken together, all of the past month’s brutality has been nothing less than an attack on the very foundations of Western and American civilization. A misguided but rather powerful attack at that. As we celebrate the 244th anniversary of founding of the United States of America—dating our birth to July 4, 1776, the day Congress passed the revolutionary document known as the Declaration of Independence, though we might just have easily placed the date on July 2 or August 2—it is well worth considering exactly what the American founding contributed to the world.
Here are three things worth noting.
First, the Declaration of Independence asserts at a profound and fundamental level the inherent dignity of every human person. “All men are created equal.” Never since the foundation of Christianity has such a proclamation been made at any practical and meaningful level. It is well worth noting and celebrating that neither Thomas Jefferson, the principle author, nor the Continental Congress insisted that all Europeans, or all whites, or all Protestants were equal. It states quite directly and with utter clarity, all men are created equal. Though the Founders did not always live up to that promise, they made the promise nonetheless. Better yet, they declared the promise had been made at the beginning of creation by the very Creator Himself. “They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Again, this was about all men, not some men.
America might, in some way, shape, or form, still be attempting to secure these rights—the primary function of government, according to the Declaration of Independence—but attempting to secure them the American people have for 244 years.
What other people came into existence for such a purpose? None, of course.
Second, the American republic secured a proper notion of the relationship of the human person to the community. Unlike much of early modern European political philosophy, such as that by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which sought to find the individual only within the national community, the American republicans understood that true solidity comes from the bottom up. That is, the human person finds his true strength and true individuality, as a member of a local community. In this, the Americans followed the philosophy of Aristotle and Edmund Burke, not Thomas Hobbes or Rousseau. Here is Burke on the matter:
We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.
Though America promoted such a view in the Declaration of Independence, its most explicit form is found in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Article II:
And, in the just preservation of rights and property, it is understood and declared, that no law ought ever to be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall, in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements, bona fide, and without fraud, previously formed.
In other words, any two or more persons may form any type of community—family, business, educational, religious, etc.—without the political sphere interfering. True community begins in what Burke called “our little platoons” and grows from there.
Finally, third, America became religiously tolerant between 1774 and 1776. Despite what our primary educational textbooks might teach, the American colonies were brutally intolerant of almost every denomination not primarily their own. Baptists and Roman Catholics were especially hated throughout most of the colonies. During the American Revolution, necessity demanded and political philosophy recognized that all peoples—all men—were needed and praised in their fight for liberty. While religion remained the primary means by which to identify a person, that religion, when properly understood, valued republican liberty as a divine gift in this world.
Happy 244th, America. The world wouldn’t be the same without you. It would be poorer, less ethical, less stable, and less humane had you never come into existence. Whatever America’s faults, her successes outweigh them all.
Yet, I would be remiss ending this essay on my words. Here is the moral encouragement (and chastisement) of John Dickinson in 1768. It is a good and frank reminder that we, as republicans, should not be miserable men, but men of gratitude as well as men of action.
Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. Yet how many are there, so weak and sordid as to think they perform all the offices of life, if they earnestly endeavor to increase their own wealth, power, and credit, without the least regard for the society, under the protection of which they live; who, if they can make an immediate profit to themselves, by lending their assistance to those, whose projects plainly tend to the injury of their country, rejoice in their dexterity, and believe themselves entitled to the character of able politicians. Miserable men! Of whom it is hard to say, whether they ought to be most the objects of pity or contempt: But whose opinions are certainly as detestable, as their practices are destructive.
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