An essay, on patriotic citizenship rather than corrosive partisanship, in honor of America’s 240th Anniversary.
America is much more than a geographical fact. It is a political and moral fact – the first community in which men set out in principle to institutionalize freedom, responsible government, and human equality. ~Adlai Stevenson
All of us have heard it, read it, written it, or perhaps even said it. “Partisanship is ruining this country; we need to stop being so partisan. It is us not “us versus them.” Forget the party think about the country!”
Though thousands, at least, express the sentiment and millions, perhaps, echo it. There is rarely a substantive follow-up, and almost never an effective follow through. If Americans abandon partisanship, to what do they turn? The answer is surprisingly intelligible, and it almost all of us has heard it. Though not well articulated at the nation’s inception, it was stated clearly shortly after the nation’s redemption: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” These words begin the Fourteenth Amendment as passed by Congress on June 13, 1866, and ratified July 9, 1868. Not there is no stipulation of white, male, Christian, straight, wealthy, or any other attribute simply: all persons. We are citizens all!
For starters, we must appreciate that America emerged from the mind, not from the mist. America does not exist by virtue of place. But by virtue of explicit thoughts and energetic efforts by people living in a particular place at a specific time. The United States of America is not now, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation. America is a creation of the European Enlightenment. Also, the United States is not in essence a particular populace from any specific historical period. As long as some few, some hopeful few, some band of brothers and sisters, know and cherish the ideas and ideals of America, the United States is an ongoing endeavor.
In this age of hyper-partisanship and dark-money driven hyperbolic campaign propaganda, we, the people, may lose sight of the patriotic forest for the partisan trees. Nothing in the American Constitutional Republic anoints Parties or partisans as the tribunes of the people or the pillars of governance of, by, and for the people. Though people and parties can respond to the times that try our character, they must do so from an informed and cherished understanding of the foundational principles and fundamental promises that make and keep America great and good. We must remember what President Clinton truly observed: “Posterity is the world to come; the world for whom we hold our ideals, from whom we have borrowed our planet, and to whom we bear sacred responsibility. We must do what America does best: offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all.” Our ancestors placed this challenge before us by our ancestors and in so doing they also gave us a treasure to be given to our descendants. We must not allow the frenzy and fury of current controversies to distract us from our solemn duty. We must not sound the death knell of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.
Our duty is not merely nationalistic because “True Americanism is practical idealism. Its aims, instead of being materialistic and mechanical, are idealistic to the point of being Utopian. In this way, the U.S. can provide and express ideals that strike a chord in humans everywhere – a declaration of independence on behalf of all the peoples of the world.” Today speaking up for this “true Americanism” has too often and too fully become a lonely and daunting ordeal. One side of the partisan divide is ravenous and bereft of reason; the other side is timorous and devoid of conviction. Properly understood, authentic Americanism should unite all Americans of goodwill in an ardent patriotism, not fixated on a particular personality, but dedicated to a specific set of worthy ideals and the struggle to bring these values to fruition in our society.
How have we come to this? Not by one route and not through the action of one person or one class. Although the people who launched the American endeavor were extraordinary, they were not perfect. They could not magically change the world in which they lived into the world they deemed both possible and preferable. That is why they spoke of commitment and referred to posterity. The world as it existed and the social and political arrangements that prevailed in their time needed transformation. Incantations would not suffice; prayers would not prevail. Action was necessary, not in short, frenzied outbursts, but prolonged and persistent efforts over multiple lifetimes. Accordingly, the Foundational Documents speak of forming a “more perfect union,” rather than a perfect union. Continual improvement is envisioned and required. Justice, Tranquility, Defense, Well-being, and Liberty are not one and done achievements. They are ongoing efforts. As a nation and a citizenry, we are either progressing toward them or regressing from them. What matters is what we do, hour-by-hour, day-by-day from the moment of our majority until the instant of our demise. In the 240 years since 4 July 1776, more than 2 million hours and roughly 88,000 days have passed. Millions, perhaps billions, of Americans have been born, have lived, and have died. As things now stand, it seems evident that too few have done too little to make the premises and the promises of America a reality for each and all.
This situation is not solely the fault of elected political leaders, but many of them bear a large share of the responsibility. It is not the fault of ordinary Americans whether they are currently alive or long dead. Nonetheless, we the people, bear a share of the responsibility. As an American citizen, no one of us can opt out. Neither prominence nor obscurity can exempt us from doing our duty. As a great and murdered president once said: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. . .. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. Th trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We know how to save the Union . . .. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility . . .. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Our knowledge comes from the Foundational Documents and the commentaries of our bravest and best leaders. All these speak in plainly intelligible language. The words are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Actions are required. One does not need specialized training to do what needs doing. The readiness and the commitment are all. Before any of us support any candidate or champion any proposal, we must check the Foundational Documents. The requirement is not to find an excuse for obstruction or delay, but to find a guide to constructive endeavor. In some cases, actions are prescribed and in others, they are prohibited. For example: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State….” This statement recurs in every Amendment to the Constitution that pertains to the right to vote the 15th ratified 3 February 1870, the 19th, the 24th, through the 26th ratified 1 July 1971. More than a century of Constitutional development has insisted that neither the United States nor any state denies or abridges the right of citizens to vote. It is high time we get the message!
In a similar manner, prohibitions are stated, and guarantees made. These rights impose constraints on the authorities and present challenges to the citizens. Despite the clarity of the documents, devious and ambitious people have managed to obscure their meaning. As a consequence, we have people such a Russell Pearce, the recalled president of the Arizona Senate, saying he can “fix public assistance programs by forcibly sterilizing women who receive aid and by requiring drug tests for all recipients.” Pearce went on to suggest “Spartan accommodations and strict rules for anyone who received government housing assistance.” For example, “You’ll maintain your property in a clean, good state of repair, and your home will be subjected to an inspection at any time, possessions will be inventoried. If you want a plasma TV or an X-Box 360, then get a job.” Clearly, Mr. Pearce is not a faithful follower of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nor does he seem to have much affinity for the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. The advocacy of these blatant violations of the rights of his brother and sister citizens has not kept Mr. Pearce from being elected vice-chair of the Arizona Republican Party and collecting both a pension and a salary of $85,000 annually from his taxpayer-paid position
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the twenty-seven amendments, have 1,458 and 7,591 words respectively. The Gettysburg Address has only 272. Thus the three Foundational American documents total a mere 9,321 words. Is it too much to ask that all of us, read, ponder, and uphold these words? Can we not agree with Stevenson that in the context of our time’s patriotism means a sense of personal and national responsibility which enables America to remain, master of her power—and enables Americans to walk in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect of all humankind. That patriotism puts country ahead of self and party; which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. That it is a mighty assignment easy to say and hard to complete because it is too often easier to proclaim and to fight for principles than to live up to them? Finally, let us now adopt and implement Jefferson’s maxim: “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”