America the unique

Oftentimes, in public discourse over current divisive or polarizing issues, comparisons are thrown up with other countries. On matters such as gun crime, or taxation, or health care, it’s easy to present statistics from nations elsewhere and portray the variances as persuasive to the partisan point. Sometimes, in some ways, such contrasts contain some validity.

But the inherent problem in all comparative analysis invokes the old fruit cliché, and its justified invalidation when differences in the subjects compared are too great. Practically put, it’s impossible to ever have an “apples to apples” comparison between the United States and any other nation on earth.

The holiday on next week’s hump day highlights this truth.

There simply is not now and has never been another democratic republic of our geographic size or population or age, self-chartered and self-governed according to the set of principles, morals and social precepts that culminated in our Declaration of Independence.

In addition to America the Beautiful, we are America the Unique.

We’re the third most populous country—and none of the other top 10 remotely resemble us in form of social construct and constitutional governance. That’s primarily because none of them have our history. Indeed, most other countries have histories that run completely at odds with ours regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our singularity is not a slam against other nations, but rather a celebration of distinctive national achievement, albeit one that falls short of the ideal in preserving the ideas that delivered it.

Business leaders today see value in employees understanding the corporate core values and “living the mission” of the organization. But if all a CEO did toward that end was host an annual picnic, few would expect much in the way of results.

Those businesses that excel in that regard do much more: They take a practical approach involving multiple communication channels, from posters on the wall and pocket guides, to accountability measures that improve work habits to align with company values.

By the same token, there is supreme value to the republic in our citizens understanding the core values that produced our independence.

The festivities each Fourth of July can commemorate and celebrate our core principles and self-evident truths, but it is not enough to perpetuate them.

Businesses encourage employees to be able to recite a 30-second “elevator speech” about the company. How many Americans can summarize the Revolution so concisely? More alarmingly, how many would misstate the matter entirely?

“What do we mean by the American Revolution?” John Adams wrote in a letter in 1818. “Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and the hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations …

“This radical change,” he said, “in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

But what brought on that change? The piece of paper adopted in Congress on July 4, 1776, wasn’t the spark; it was, as titled, a declaration and explanation.

Many people don’t want to be bothered with “getting into the weeds” of the philosophers and thinkers—some from antiquity—who shaped the founders’ views. Likewise, many employees get annoyed with so much focus on vision, mission and core values, when there’s actual work to be done.

The key in both instances is that knowledge and understanding are critical to performance.

Part of our political polarity today stems from fundamental misunderstandings about the spirit of liberty as conceived in colonial America.

Indeed, it’s impossible to understand how radical our nation’s notion of liberty was without first understanding what it was before to other nations and other civilizations. Without appreciating the longstanding social orders of royalty, nobility and commons, and the traditional relation between law and divine right, it’s difficult to fathom the full attainment of freedom achieved by the American colonists.

Even the word “constitution” conveyed an altogether different meaning in 1760 than it does for us today. Comprehending how that word evolved from its common definition then as describing the entwined existence of a political system to a limiting charter of government power in 1787 is central to grasping American liberty–and its need for fervent protection.

We take the world we live in for granted. Our plenty is an anomaly among the world’s hungry billions; intellectually we might know of starving peoples in faraway places, but it is disconnected from our daily consumption, as evidenced by our sizable BMI statistics.

We take our liberty even more for granted.

There are tens of millions of people trying to reduce their weight, and countless weight-loss programs and speakers and websites and documents to assist them. Were that even half as many people sought to truly understand the radical change in Americans that produced the United States!

Mention Algernon Sidney or Cato’s Letters at your cookout next week and gauge the blank stares. Better yet, commit to yourself to Google them (both were foundational to the Revolution). Even if you only read a little, you and your holiday spirit will be better for it.

The literature of liberty

I enjoy re-reading the Declaration of Independence every year, and since it was a drizzly Fourth this year, I settled into a comfy chair and spent a few hours soaking up the rich literature surrounding America’s founding.

So many learned men engaged so many ideas on liberty in so many different formats (pamphlets, letters, editorials, resolutions and more), there could literally be a Bartlett’s Quotations edition solely about America’s independence.

In years past, I have suggested Arkansas create a Constitution Class as part of our public school curricula. I’m amending that now, to propose instead that we create an American Independence Class.

The class could cover the period from about 1760 to 1790. In a 180-day school year, that would devote roughly six days to each year in the three-decade span. Some years might only get a couple of days in classroom instruction, some critical ones (1774-1776, for example) might need two weeks apiece.

The beauty of offering a course dedicated to better understanding the ideas, principles, people and events behind American Independence is that there is a treasure trove of original material from which to draw.

There’s no reason for modern textbook writers to paraphrase the views of the various patriots, Whigs, Tories or British political figures. They all left incredible documentation in their own eloquent words—and much of it is explicitly contrary to errant assertions made and repeated today about the founding era.

How much more informative it is to hear how British leaders characterized the colonies, and how the colonists themselves debated the issues and circumstances involved in separating from England.

English statesman Edmund Burke, renowned as an author and orator and philosopher, delivered a powerful speech in Parliament in March 1775 proposing conciliatory measures with the colonies.

Part of his reasoning that peaceful reconciliation would be superior to military suppression was based on the colonists themselves as a new breed of citizen.

“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole,” he said. “… This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.”

He credited several powerful causes, including their English heritage (and fidelity to English ideas of liberty) and their religion.

“Religion, always a principle of energy, in this new people is no way worn out or impaired,” Burke told the members of Parliament. “The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.”

The intractable, unconquerable grit in Americans also owed much to their education, Burke argued.

“In other countries, the people, more simple and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance,” he said. “Here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Thomas Jefferson first established his reputation for revolutionary penmanship with “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774. Virginia’s colonial convention ultimately decided the document was too radical, but Jefferson’s stirring words explaining the American perspective were still compelling, especially in outlining colonial self-sufficiency and growth.

“America was conquered, and her settlements made and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public,” he wrote. “Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual. No shilling was ever issued from the public treasures of His Majesty or his ancestors for their assistance, till of very late times, after the colonies had … become valuable to Great Britain for her commercial purposes.”

Often published anonymously, colonial newspaper editorials minced no words, as evidenced in a November 1774 piece “On The Depravity of Kings and the Sovereignty of the People.”

“We read, now and then, it is true, of a good king; so we read likewise of a prophet escaping unhurt from a lion’s den, and of three men walking in a fiery furnace without having even their garments singed,” the editorialist wrote. “The order of nature is as much inverted in the first as it was in the last two cases. A good king is a miracle.”

The lessons to be learned in an American Independence class are broad and limitless. There is second-guessing of General Washington during the war, dissidence regarding slaves in a free land, and expressed worries and hopes galore about self-government and its uncharted political frontier.

Scams work best on the unsophisticated. The best weapon against the soundbite, special-interest, PAC-funded campaigns that distort history and heritage is what founder after founder urged: the diffusion of knowledge and virtue and the principles of liberty and government through education.

We have a wealth of wonderful literature on exceptional American Independence; all we have to do is teach it. Make it a required class in every grade, and we’ll raise better experts on liberty.