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Cultivating Virtuous Citizenship?: A Law and Liberty Symposium on American National Character

These short essays are the first fruits of the American National Character & Civic Friendship Project, an initiative of the Ryan Foundation. The inspiration for the project derives from the frequent observation that the United States has become politically polarized. Our concern is not simply that Americans disagree on matters of policy, but that we are increasingly divided in terms of our most basic beliefs, commitments, habits, and affections – that we no longer live, or perhaps even wish to live, as one people.

Defining Freedom Up: National Character Revived

by W.B. Allen

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Religious Liberty, and America’s Character

by Sen. Rick Santorum

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes

by Rogers M. Smith

Self-Government Cannot Live while Congress is Moribund

by Philip Wallach

George Washington wrote in a 1785 letter to James Madison that “we are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which has national objects to promote, and a national character to support.” Washington and Madison recognized the need to shape our national character and cultivate civic friendship, by which they meant the formation of habits of “a people” dedicated to a common purpose and informed by a certain set of principles and practices. Those principles were the principles that Americans had fought and died for in the American Revolution, summarily expressed in the Declaration of Independence and captured in the phrase “self-government.”

Each of the essays in this symposium addresses in some way the challenge of self-government and the obstacles it faces in our time. Are Americans today still animated, as Publius claimed “every votary of freedom” is ever animated, by “that honorable determination…to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government”?  Or has the experiment in self-government been abandoned, replaced by different principles and diverse purposes?  Our authors all seem to say or imply that we – Americans of all stripes – need to take stock of our original mission as a self-governing people. Of course, they emphasize different needs, but they speak with one voice in favor of the American political mission itself.

It is our hope that these essays, and the future fruits of the American National Character & Civic Friendship Project, will inspire fellow scholars and citizens to address, theoretically and practically, the question of what is most needed in our country today, if we are to remain one people.

The Ryan Foundation gratefully acknowledges the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s support of this project.

— Colleen Sheehan and Steven McGuire

Reader Discussion

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on April 03, 2018 at 13:24:03 pm

With the chaos we suffer, the USA may consider the civic agreement that is offered in the preamble to the constitution for the USA.

With a view to defend Magna Carta (1215), the premise representing Professor Smith herein might hold in some groups, but it does not offer civic morality:

Quote: Washington and Madison recognized the need to . . . cultivate civic friendship, by which they meant the formation of habits of “a people” dedicated to a common purpose and informed by a certain set of principles and practices. Those principles were the principles that Americans had fought and died for in the American Revolution, summarily expressed in the Declaration of Independence and captured in the phrase “self-government.” Unquote.

Imposing Madison’s thoughts on Washington and the Declaration of Independence on the 1787 Constitution is unfavorable to 2018 collaboration, since Madison’s god differed from Washington’s god; and they did not necessarily believe Jefferson’s god.

Here’s Washington, as fellow-citizen and expressing civic morality on June 8, 1783; loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/peace/circular.html. He said, “the existence of the United States as an Independent Power” requires:

Quote: The prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community. Unquote.

Soon, the Treaty of Paris would submit that the thirteen states that conducted the Revolutionary War were free and independent. The thirteen free and independent states ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784. The rest of the Washington quote appeals to willing citizens in their states to collaborate for general prosperity. It in effect, disengages from the declaration of war against England so as to focus on establishing a nation. The states would subsist independently for over three years before they began to negotiate the USA, a negotiation that is as fierce today as ever. However, Washington’s statement in 1783 was independent from Madison and other 1787 delegates.

“Self-government” seems a John Locke idea, but Locke’s religious diversity was confined to theism---did not consider trust-in and commitment-to the-objective-truth. Madison, in Memorial and Remonstrance said a citizens’ propriety for civic morality began with theism; my person, exercising human authority to direct fidelity, adamantly opposes Madison’s opinion. Washington seems a theist, but I doubt he would oppose my human authority regarding my fidelity. The heart of the USA regression so far is failure to recognize that the human individual must accept the authority to develop fidelity to the-objective-truth or not yet collaborate with other citizens so as to share the benefits of discovery.

I write “regression,” because the 2/3 of delegates who signed the 1787 Constitution (with Washington as chief advocate) created the framework by which the people collaborate despite another division: civic citizens collaborating against dissidents to justice. There are some dissidents to justice in almost every social association, including theism.

On June 21, 1788, the people of nine states ratified the 1787 Constitution, establishing the USA, but with the intention to add a bill of rights. With that political opening, the First Congress (of ten states) hired, by May, 1789, factional Protestant ministers so as to represent themselves as divine on par with Parliament and its Canterbury clergy. American theism has fought to regress to Blackstone instead of the 1787 Constitution or the 1791 amendment, ever since. I work to separate church from state; and, to constrain civil alienation of some churches or none, to separate state from church.

Moreover, I work for private liberty with civic morality according to the-objective-truth, which in 2018 is a defensible view of the intent of the preamble to the constitution for the USA. Rather than conflict for dominant opinion, every human may develop his or her lifetime of energy in fidelity to the-objective-truth rather than religious beliefs as purported surrogates for civic morality.

In 2018, the need for reform to the 1787 Constitution by amendment of the 1791 injustices is too obvious to stonewall. Most Christian clergy have failing leadership: the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Elmer Gantry all are well known for sexual abuse. Many blacks don’t seem to care about the preamble, even though Frederick Douglass did on July 5, 1852. Some believers want salvation of their souls according to personal preference, but when they face hurricanes, wild-fires, and tornedoes, they collaborate for mutual, comprehensive safety and security---for life that yet waits death. Freedom of the press has wandered so far from responsible reporting that it has made itself irrelevant to on-line media. The entire Supreme Court is comprised of theists: 3 Jews and 6 Catholics! Meanwhile, fidelity to the-objective-truth empowers life and offers civil reform.

In 2018, we know so much more than humans knew a couple thousand years ago when the Holy Bible’s books were written; 1700 years ago, when the Church chose books to canonize; 800 years ago when the clergy-politician partnership was formed so as to coerce believers; 500 years ago when Machiavelli warned of the partnerships tyranny in “The Prince,” Chapter XI; 231 years ago when the signers gave us a constitution that was neutral to religion, the races, and wealth; and 77 years ago. Then, Albert Einstein suggested that fidelity to the-objective-truth works both in the discovery of physics, with its progeny such as mathematics and biology, as well as in morality; samharris.org/my-friend-einstein/. Einstein’s only example is that a civic people do not lie so as to lessen misery and loss rather than to observe a divine law.

Self-government can succeed if a willing people accept human authority to collaborate for statutory justice based on the-objective-truth rather than dominant opinion. Human individuals have the authority to control their energy for life, and they may choose fidelity or not---criminality or worse. Humankind may coach and influence but cannot teach or coerce collaboration for justice. Therefore governments establish laws by which to force constraint, imprisonment, or death to uncivil people. But even the unjust individual has the human authority by which to judge and oppose arbitrary laws---laws based on dominant opinion. Therefore, arbitrary law produces chaos, as we observe in 2018 “under God.”

I know of no better forum than this one from which the proposal for civic collaboration for fidelity to the-objective-truth may emerge.

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Phillip Beaver
on September 03, 2019 at 06:02:11 am

[…] question, however, is whether the Constitution designed for such a people still exists. In our previous symposium on this site, concerning the question of American national character, nothing was more powerfully […]

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Image of No People? No Constitution!
No People? No Constitution!

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