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.

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Correct Observation

Half the states in the Union have abandoned Washington’s Birthday on Monday for some variation of pin-the-apostrophe-on-the-word-President holiday.

We can all be proud that Arkansas is not among them.

To begin with, there is no such thing as a national Presidents (or President’s or Presidents’) Day. When Congress changed the law in 1968 to move the date of observation to the third Monday in February, it did not change the name. If you’re the doubting type, visit the federal Office of Personnel Management website (opm.gov). The official federal holiday is still, as it’s been since 1879, Washington’s Birthday.

As well it should be. If any American is worthy of a national holiday, the Father of our Country is singularly deserving.

That distinction doesn’t demean other Americans or their noteworthy achievements. It merely acknowledges the universal truth: George Washington was indeed the “indispensable man” of the founding era as heralded by historian James Flexner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.

Like the eponymous monument, he towered over a host of pivotal, luminary statesmen. What’s more, his political contemporaries knew and accepted as much. The disagreements between Federalists and Anti-Federalists were legion, yet they unanimously agreed on Washington’s merit and credentials to be the nation’s first chief executive.

Since the nation’s inception, it was always common knowledge from kindergarten classes to the Oval Office that without Washington there would have been “no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no Republic.”

Until recently.

Washington’s birthday was a grass-roots national celebration for 100 years before Congress got around to codifying it by statute, but over the past few decades that has waned dramatically.

Despite our legislature’s fidelity to the holiday’s namesake, far too many businesses within our state’s borders join innumerable others around the country in shamelessly behaving as if Monday is “National Shill Day.”

What untold blessings the citizenry might obtain were the same energy directed toward Presidents Day sales applied to the study and emulation of our first president! How much more industry, service, sacrifice and achievement the nation might enjoy if more of us aspired to imitate Washington’s example of will, discipline, effort and perseverance. Or if we internalized as counsel Washington’s own succinct explanation of his successes shortly before his death: He had always striven to walk a “straight line.”

He had endeavored, he wrote, “as far as human frailties, and perhaps strong passions, would enable him, to discharge the relative duties to his Maker and fellow-men, without seeking any indirect or left handed attempts to acquire popularity.”

Words of wisdom, indeed, to a culture that constantly confuses popularity and leadership. And there are countless more wise words where those came from.

Nineteenth-century author J.F. Schroeder called Washington the World’s Apostle of Liberty, due to the general’s prolific correspondence and his heroism in the Revolutionary War of principles “that involved the interests of all mankind.”

Washington wrote an estimated 20,000 letters and his collected writings (to date) fill more than 60 volumes.

What if all American adolescents today were required to copy down the same 110 Rules of Civility that Washington did, and commit to conforming to them in attitude and action? Instead, young Americans can complete 17 consecutive years of education and yet command barely a cursory knowledge of the only American truly without peer.

This demands remedying.

Restore Washington’s place to “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” and we will simultaneously restore his myriad virtues as extolled examples at a time when exemplary role models are desperately needed.

Let that restoration begin by banning the abomination known as Presidents Day. As one historian noted, to bundle a Buchanan and Washington under the same holiday is to “conflate copper with gold.”

The original purpose for national holidays was to focus Americans’ attention in unity on concepts greater than themselves, not to merely take time off from work for recreation. As conceived by the founders, Thanksgiving and Independence Day celebrated national principles around which all citizens should rightly rally. This notion has extended to subsequent holidays as well, such as Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Requiring all states to observe Washington’s Birthday may not revoke Monday’s pervading crass commercialism, but it will at least result in renaming it all—and repetitive name recognition is a positive first step in rebranding.

Next, let’s capitalize on the little flash of parade fever emanating from the vicinity of Pennsylvania Avenue by establishing an annual Washington’s Birthday parade in the nation’s capital.

This initiative could also serve to re-institute the practice in states and localities, where it once was ubiquitous every February.

The capital city that bears his name and is host to Congress has sunk to levels of such low esteem that it may have transplanted his personage in the minds of many, perhaps most, Americans.

We the people need to return to a collective state of mind in which, when the word “Washington” is heard, it once again instills by common consent the standard for illustrious character of the American spirit.

It’s a long journey, so start with a small step—correct anyone who refers to Monday as Presidents Day.

Spirit of ’31

There is something momentous about a large and diverse population aligning along a universal plane of thought.

That’s what still happens every Fourth of July in America.

It was visible in Facebook feeds from sea to shining sea, which featured quotes, photos and videos honoring our national birthday. Posts were as varied as people themselves, and all highlighted what so proudly we hail. Some posted snapshots of their families adorned in red, white and blue. Some filmed fireworks. Some shared famous speeches or essays.

Every expression centered around the same theme, whether comic or romantic or dramatic. The love of liberty evokes the full spectrum of spillover emotions; the tear erupting from joy and hope is no less damp than that born of sympathy for struggle and sacrifice.

All were encompassed in achieving our Revolution; all are enshrined in our remembrances.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was adopted, Independence Day still harmonizes us to the common chorus of patriotism on parade.

John Adams predicted as much, with uncanny accuracy. He foresaw a national anniversary festival “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

The only smudge on his crystal ball obscured the date; Adams thought it would be July 2, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t technically adopted until July 4.

One notable and unexpected observer of a Fourth of July celebration in 1831 was a young French fellow who would, seven years later, publish a book chronicling his stay in America and his observations on our democracy.

The pen of Alexis de Tocqueville was not idle during his visit, and in addition to abundant notes Tocqueville also wrote numerous letters to his family in France. Those personal messages, contemporary to his daily activities as a visitor, are easier reading than his scholarly masterpiece work detailed with analytical scrupulousness and annotation.

The voyage across the Atlantic took 35 days, and a month at sea in those days and conditions is essentially incomprehensible for us today.

Tocqueville kept up his spirits, however, and shared stories of the adventure. Writing to his mother, he described his fellow passengers: “We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. … I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew.”

When Tocqueville arrived in New York, he immediately began sharing his revelations regarding American propensities about work ethic, hospitality and food consumption.

He noted that the typical day began early with a couple hours of work before breakfast at 8.

“[W]e were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day,” he wrote on May 14 to his mother. “We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper. …

“[W]e are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets,” he added. “Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack.”

In another letter the next day he reported the “incredible contempt” Americans had for distance on this sprawling continent.

Navigation on “immense” rivers and canals in America made travel consistently possible at “4 leagues an hour [12 knots],” he wrote. “Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.”

In June, while visiting Sing Sing (Tocqueville’s official purpose in visiting America was to study prisons), he wrote to his father that “this population is one of the happiest in the world.” He credited American contentment to a universal spirit of industry that left no time for “troubling the State.”

“The more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth,” he said, “that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied.”

On July 4, 1831, Tocqueville was visiting Albany for administrative meetings, and encountered the state capital’s celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence.

The parade and ceremony culminated in a large church, where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in its simple language (he characterized the reading as “in no way a theatrical performance”). But the effect he beheld awed and astonished him.

“It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there,” he wrote in a letter.

“In this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with [a previous] one … with which, for a moment, it shared all these generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”

Goosebumps in July continue to be a uniquely American tradition. May it always be so.