fbpx

Defining Freedom Up: National Character Revived

Editor’s Note: This essay appeared in Cultivating Virtuous Citizenship?: A Law and Liberty Symposium on the Ryan Foundation’s American National Character Project.

In the beginning, Americans got it right. They did not fall for the false choice between the comfort of the least and the potential of the best, sometimes posed as a choice between the common good and individualism. Instead, the founders envisioned a productive people who were at the same time a caring people. They identified social progress with realizing the potential of the best. Lately social progress tends to be identified with the comfort of the least, which is a dumbing down of the idea of freedom.

As a result, our government has turned away from relying upon creative and productive individuals to advance society and instead looks at citizens first of all as wards of the state (the disadvantaged) and secondly as lucky (the advantaged; the “you didn’t build that”). The problem is, a society can care for the least of its members only when it fosters the productivity of the best of its citizens. Our upside down view of praiseworthy character threatens to undermine the foundation of social progress in good character, in an elevated idea of freedom.

We can appraise the chances for restoring a healthy national character by revisiting the elements the founders thought to be fundamental to national character. And none of those elements was more important than conscience. “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” was the lesson eleven-year old George Washington transcribed and by which he lived. Thus, after the new government was established, he wrote to the Baptists in Virginia, “For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.

He assured the Presbyterians that, “While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.” To the Quakers he preached that “Government being … instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from [oppression] themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others. The liberty enjoyed by the people of these states of worshipping Almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights.

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Washington extemporized that “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. [August 1790] And to the German congregation in New York he explained that “The establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive which induced me to the Field; the object is attained, and it now remains to be my earnest wish and prayer, that the Citizens of the United States would make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings, placed before them.” The clear point: the goal was not merely free expression but social benefit.

What Washington considered a wise and virtuous use of the freedom of conscience was spelled out in the “general orders” issued to the troops at the close of the war, when, among other things for which they fought, Washington pointed out “protecting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.”

Ultimately, therefore, the vision of self-government was a vision of a conscientious people, exerting themselves with enlightened regard for the rights of others while reserving from government the prerogatives of conscience. Thus it is that James Madison in 1785 could identify conscience as the foundation of all the rights for which the revolution was waged, maintaining that the “freedom of conscience” is not only “a right towards men” but “a duty towards the Creator.” “This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.” And this is what Madison had in mind when, in a 1792 essay on property rights he identified the first right as the “property” each person had in his or her conscience.

This commingling of property with conscience – the material with the spiritual – was neither paradoxical nor accidental. It reflected instead the settled conviction that human beings, in order to perform at the highest levels – that is most productively – required to enjoy the greatest possible independence compatible with social order. And within that context they could then be counted on to act with optimum benevolence towards one another. They would first become themselves the guarantors of their own well-being, while secondly offering generous care for those in need.

This is what Americans got right in the beginning. They laid the foundations of their political principles in the assured conviction that providence had provided the necessary guidance in the form of conscience to fulfill their highest expectations for human flourishing, what Washington called the “empire of liberty.” Freedom seen in this light is uplifting, creating a social up-draft. While the “freedom from hunger” mantra emphasized in the 20th century has created a social down-draft, in which freedom looks more and more like full bodies with empty souls. The question: can America still be worthy of imitation if its national character does not point to the fulfillment of spiritual needs as its highest priority?

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 03, 2018 at 19:59:53 pm

No words need be added to this post. Well stated Mr Allen

read full comment
Image of Jeffrey Cantelope
Jeffrey Cantelope
on April 05, 2018 at 15:50:59 pm

Professor Allen asks, “can America still be worthy of imitation if its national character does not point to the fulfillment of spiritual needs as its highest priority?”
I think General George Washington, as fellow-citizen, answered “yes” 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:

“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.”
Thus, Washington, a theist, did not bring theism into “general prosperity, and . . . sacrifice.” In other words, his appeal was neutral to spiritualism. I think Washington would defend my objection to James Madison’s attempt to impose theism, particularly Christianity, onto citizenship.
Meriam-Webster online (WMO) defines spiritualism “the view that spirit is a prime element of reality,” spirit “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms,” and reality “something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily.” I think inspiration and motivation are less constructed than spiritualism, but would not impose that opinion on other persons, especially MWW, who is Catholic.
Some people, perhaps like me, are inspired and motivated by the-objective-truth, which exists and can only be discovered, perhaps understood, and used for benefits. For a first example, knowing that the earth is like a globe and influenced by gravity empowers people to sail without fear of falling off an edge. Second, establishing trust by consistently neither initiating nor tolerating a lie empowers collaborating partners to share integrity rather than mere honesty. In these two discoveries, one physical and the other psychological, yet coming from the same source, there is no need for civic introduction of either of the collaborator’s private concerns, such as hopes for a favorable afterdeath or reincarnation or rejoining a universal soul.
Conscience was critical to 17th century European thought. MWO defines it “the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.” Every human individual has the authority to express civic good will and to behave morally, yet must contend with coercion, mendacity, and force. An individual may offer civic morality with private liberty.
The preamble to the constitution for the USA offers an agreement on which to collaborate for civic morality; in other words, justice. When he or she trusts-in and commits-to the preamble’s agreement, an individual changes or reforms from dissident-to justice to civic citizen. The dissident may live in peace as long as he or she conforms to both civility and legality. The civic citizen may develop fidelity. It may be fidelity to-the-objective truth, with or without religion.

I think with most citizens using the agreement offered by the preamble and collaboration based on the-objective-truth rather than dominant opinion, America can become what the signers of the 1787 Constitution intended.

read full comment
Image of Phillip Beaver
Phillip Beaver
on April 12, 2018 at 15:52:24 pm

This is a fine example, to speak elliptically, of sound reasoning misapplied. None of the founders who commented on the question failed to observe that the right of conscience by definition encompassed the independent exertion of every judgment concerning right and wrong and not merely those judgments conforming to any particular standard, let alone prevailing standards. The important difference, ignoring which produces the present cri de coeur, is rather the critical insight that the foundation of conscience is not a mere act of will. That is taken to be objectively necessary, including even by Lord Acton, who argued that "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." The irreducible minimum, however, is that no one can do what he or she ought unless all are assured the opportunity to do as he or she thinks she ought. To think, therefore, that one possesses and must follow the "objective truth" is not only not foreclosed by this argument, but is empowered only by it.

read full comment
Image of W. B. Allen
W. B. Allen
on April 13, 2018 at 11:10:24 am

[…] http://www.libertylawsite.org/2018/04/03/defining-freedom-up-national-character-revived-symposium-vi… […]

read full comment
Image of Board Members on American National Character – Freedoms Foundation
Board Members on American National Character – Freedoms Foundation
on April 29, 2018 at 14:08:35 pm

[…] of truth and courage. In these dark times, how can we be anything but Americans, and accept the character call to rise to the challenge and be a heroic […]

read full comment
Image of An Imminent Counterattack Begins the Fight of Our Lives - American Greatness
An Imminent Counterattack Begins the Fight of Our Lives - American Greatness
on April 30, 2018 at 05:11:13 am

[…] of truth and courage. In these dark times, how can we be anything but Americans, and accept the character call to rise to the challenge and be a heroic […]

read full comment
Image of Unraveling the Deep State Narrative An Imminent Counterattack Begins the Fight of Our Lives By D Hawthorne Part 3 | RUTHFULLY YOURS
Unraveling the Deep State Narrative An Imminent Counterattack Begins the Fight of Our Lives By D Hawthorne Part 3 | RUTHFULLY YOURS

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.