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

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

No one can doubt that the United States is profoundly riven over sharply opposed conceptions of who Americans are and should be as a people. Though Barack Obama argued that the U.S. was “dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one,’” his two terms only saw American divisions deepen. His successor Donald Trump not only represented the opposition party. He also denounced the Washington “establishment” of both parties and promised to “make America great again,” in ways that stirred fear and anger among many Americans who had been excluded or subordinated in the nation’s past. American polarization has become so severe that many will only believe news or facts endorsed by their fellow partisans, and many shudder at the thought of their child marrying someone from the other side.

But though building and sustaining a sense of unity in any political society is always challenging, Americans have resources that can enable them to discover common ground and recover a sense of shared civic purposes. I have long argued that political communities are held together in part by “stories of peoplehood.” These are narratives that elaborate not only the economic and political benefits of community membership but also its moral worth. No complex society, to be sure, has one single story of its political identity and moral meaning. Long-lasting societies instead display multiple stories that express the distinct experiences and aspirations of different community members — but that also overlap sufficiently so that they can inspire widespread loyalty, sufficient to persuade people to work through their differences to achieve the goals and values they have in common.

Obama’s vision of America as dedicated to “e pluribus unum” is one such story, Trump’s vision of “America First” is another. But while the first promises inclusion, it is vague about the goals that might inspire senses of unity. The second makes its goal of American greatness clear, but it does so in ways that make many Americans feel left out. There are better unifying stories in America’s rich heritage that, if added to these, might help many more Americans gain or regain senses of shared purposes with each other.

The story of American identity that I find most compelling is one first told by opponents of slavery like Frederick Douglass in the antebellum era. Its most influential narrator was Abraham Lincoln. These leaders understood America as dedicated to a project of achieving, over time, with difficulties and setbacks, meaningful enjoyment by all of the basic rights in the Declaration of Independence — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As Lincoln put it, the Declaration had established a “maxim” that should be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated,” thereby “constantly spreading and deepening its influence” and “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” Lincoln saw the U.S. Constitution and the political system it created as the “silver frame” for this “apple of gold,” the fruit toward which free governments should aim.

For Lincoln, this inclusive project of enabling all truly to possess these basic rights and liberties meant that governments should help provide what we would today describe as infrastructure — systems of transportation and communication — and also education and aid to the poor, as well as systems for law enforcement and self-governance. Lincoln saw these systems as necessary if people were really to pursue happiness, as opposed to just struggling to survive. Americans have long disagreed on the roles governments should play in achieving these goals — but most share the goals. Lincoln also recognized that in light of economic, regional, religious, and other forms of diversity, the pursuits of happiness of different Americans would take different forms. Within limits, he thought those forms should be accommodated. Again, Americans have long disagreed on the precise limits, but most share these goals. By hearing each other’s stories of who they are and who they want to be, they might discover they in fact share more than they now believe.

In sum, I believe that if Americans see themselves as a people defined by the project of securing the Declaration of Independence’s rights and liberties, ultimately for all persons, of all colors, everywhere, they can find a sense of shared moral purpose that may enable them to work through their differences over how infrastructure programs should be crafted, and how far the different ways of life of conservative religious groups, of immigrants, of sexual minorities and others can be accommodated. I do not claim, however, that this is the story of American peoplehood all must accept.

As sociologist Ruth Braunstein has shown, many Americans on the right and left instead embrace stories of themselves as part of a democratic people, working for progress through democratic engagement. My point instead is that we need both a politics that advances multiple stories of shared American identities and purposes, and one that seeks to find as much common ground as possible in those stories. Then we can chart directions for progress that build on what most Americans can agree to be the greatest ideals we have inherited from our past, while achieving, partly through accepting most of our differences, greater unity in shared endeavors to enable all to enjoy the blessings of liberty in our present and future.

Reader Discussion

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on April 03, 2018 at 13:42:20 pm

Nice essay and one that highlights explicitly the value / need for "foundational stories (myths, perhaps?) and implicitly the devastation wrought by the century long project of the Progressives to *debunk* those foundational stories.

"In sum, I believe that if Americans see themselves as a people defined by the project of securing the Declaration of Independence’s rights and liberties, ultimately for all persons, of all colors, EVERYWHERE..."

AND

" My point instead is that we need both a *politics* that advances multiple stories of shared American identities and purposes, and one that seeks to find as much common ground as possible in those stories. "

1) The inclusion of "everywhere" would seem to preclude, or at least, make more difficult both the "politics" and the efficacy of the "foundational stories" upon which the essayist rightly bases his argument. Indeed, it runs counter to one aspect of a particular foundational understanding:

John Jay from Federalist 1: "Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to THE SAME PRINCIPLES of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and, who by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence...[they] are a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties."

In sum, the blessings of liberty, the *viability* of "Politics", in Jay's (and other founders) estimation is predicated upon a certain consistency of habit, custom and general political / philosophical principles. Efforts / impulses currently undertaken by those elements of the Progressive Project to "enlarge the sphere", well beyond any Madisonian sense run counter to the foundational understanding that America was (and ought to be?) the result of a peculiar confluence of events / peoples and that it's continuance would require, at a minimum, some measure of attachment to those principles, customs, etc as well as some similar demographics.

Now it is easy today to read into Jay's comments an aversion to others, an *animus* if you will towards other cultures, peoples and religions; to do so, however, would be to misread the insight Jay is offering and one not inconsistent with Mr. smith's position. The form of politics realized / practiced is to a significant extent a function (or should be) of the material; form should conform to the human material comprising the body politic, i.e., customs, practices, traditions, etc. This does not, nor SHOULD not, imply unerring consistency, a stifling unchangeability, rather it presupposes some measure of consistent belief, practice and shared outlook, ambitions, aspirations.

2) given the need for a politics that will yield all that the essayist suggests (and with which I agree) it would appear that the continuing Project to *debunk* the American founding, indeed to debunk the American Regime, and the Projects further *aspirational* delusion that ALL are to be afforded these Rights and Liberties, no matter where they are situated, no matter how hostile are their native traditions, beliefs and politics to the American Regime, one could argue that it is inevitable that "politics" as understood by the Founding, and many succeeding generations will, or very soon will be, impossible.

3) It is argued by some that the *Spirit* of the Declaration ought to be imbued in the citizenry. Indeed, it ought to be. It is also argued that the Spirit ought to be imbued in our Laws. Absolutely! it is, however, also advanced that it is this Spirit which ought to motivate the Judicial Branch when confronted with cases and controversies, in particular those cases which reach Constitutional consideration. Given our current dysfunctional politics, our inability to *politically* settle disputes, it is not surprising that many contentious issues come before the Judicial Branch for resolution. How much more pronounced will this "passing the buck" to the Judicial Branch phenomenon will be as we continue to erode the unifying tendency of our foundational stories, as we blindly accept all manner of "politics", ideology and customs that are antithetical to our own customs, traditions, etc?

4) The end result, I assert, will be the complete abandonment of politics, properly understood, to the Judicial Branch, who will then divine the Spirit that we disorganized tribes, rejoicing in our otherness, are unable to resolve either amongst ourselves or through the mechanism of our Legislative apparatus?

The end result will be to allow the Judicial to "Let the Spirit loose". Politics will suffer a slow painful demise and the simple recognition, by the Founders, that we are not, and cannot, make immanent a utopia for ALL, everywhere but that rather we shall make reasonable progress toward that Spirited goal, while making just accommodation, i.e. political compromise(s) on both liberties, rights and obligations, shall forever be lost.

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gabe
on April 03, 2018 at 14:14:25 pm

Oops, forgot:

The other objection to everywhere is such an impulse to extend the "blessings of liberty" EVERYWHERE may lead not only to the foreign *entanglements* against which George Washington warned us but that the consequences of such entanglements may actually lead to a deprivation of liberty at home as a result of "security" concerns, the asymmetrical retaliation tactics (how is that for a euphemism) of those we are desirous of bestowing those *blessings* upon and the then consequent need to further tighten *security.*

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gabe
on April 09, 2018 at 22:54:44 pm

Nothing confuses American-independence readers more than Abraham Lincoln’s revisionist history. Some people think the preamble to the 1787 Constitution for the USA, is the first sentence of the 1776 eastern seaboard British colonies declaring to the king of England that they were free and independent states.
But Professor Smith cites Abraham Lincoln’s opinions to assert, “Long-lasting societies . . . display multiple stories that express the distinct experiences and aspirations of different community members — but . . . persuade people to work through their differences to achieve the goals and values they have in common.”
I suggest two requirements for “working through differences.” First, We the People of the United States, as defined in the preamble to the constitution for the USA, offers the willing individual the opportunity to collaborate during his or her lifetime for private liberty with civic morality rather than conflict with fellow citizens for dominant opinion. Second, what willing individuals have in common is the opportunity to develop fidelity to the-objective-truth, which every responsible preferential association may support. For example, believers may work for a favorable afterdeath yet collaborate for comprehensive safety and security during life. Infidelity to the-objective-truth is dissidence, perhaps dissidence to justice.
In the opinion “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere,” Lincoln could have referred to the civic agreement that is offered in the preamble to the constitution for the USA, completed according to intentions in 1791, instead of the 1776 British colonists’ declaration that they had become statesmen and were independent of England. The preamble is offered to all inhabitants who are citizens or would become citizens, whereas the declaration is by the inhabitants in 1776 who declared and won their independence. On January 14, 1784, they ratified that they were thirteen free and independent states.
Ironically, Professor Smith quotes a Lincoln document that proposes eternal separation of the races rather than liberty-to bond according to personal preferences. The preamble is neutral to both race and religion, but Lincoln did not reveal awareness.
Professor Smith understands why he does not appreciate fact that the 1776 declaration followed the 1774 peoples’ rebellion against the Massachusetts royal government. See http://historyofmassachusetts.org/massachusetts-american-revolution/. “On September 1, 1774, after [General] Gage removed the colonist’s . . . supply from a powder house in Somerville, thousands of men from outside of Boston . . . marched into Cambridge [and] forced all the members of the royal appointees in Cambridge, two members of the mandamus counsel, the sheriff and the court clerks to either resign or apologize. They then moved on to the mansion of lieutenant governor where they forced him to resign as well.” There were many actions like this by crowds numbering in the thousands of inhabitants.
It is fitting that from a 1774 rebellion by the people for freedom-from oppression in this country, to the 1787 civic agreement offered to the people, in 2018 We the people of the United States may establish civic morality with private liberty. Individuals collaborating with the preamble may develop fidelity to the-objective-truth so as to create an achievable, better future that motivates dissidents to reform rather than alienates them for indefinite division.

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Phillip Beaver
on April 13, 2018 at 11:07:05 am

[…] http://www.libertylawsite.org/2018/04/03/to-secure-the-blessings-of-liberty-sharing-stories-of-ameri… […]

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Board Members on American National Character – Freedoms Foundation

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.