The Principles Upon Which This Nation Rests
I recently had a conversation with a friend who declared it is the institutions which govern our society that make it great. He believed that our system of governance—our forms and laws—are what make America unique. I understand his point, but believe to best understand America we need to look to the basic principles of the American Founding which informed the design of those forms and institutions. America has tried to spread democratic regimes to other places and has failed. There must be something more to this country than a form of government. More so than a nation of governing institutions, America is an idea that—as Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address—was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This extends beyond our political institutions. The rights which this nation seeks to protect are something greater than any one person because they exist outside of time and place—those “unalienable rights” that Jefferson wrote of in the Declaration of Independence.
The American Founding is something that most people have some admiration of, even if not a comprehensive understanding. Those who do not study it may not be able to quantify it, but they experience its effects each and every day. The great Dr. Peter Schramm used to describe a certain way in which “you Americans” hold each other as equals. In aristocratic nations, one who was of a lower-class would never converse with someone above them or vice versa, but in America most people believe they are “middle-class”—just with differing amounts of material possessions. Most Americans do not expect those with lesser means to move off of the sidewalk to allow the more affluent to pass, as would be expected in an aristocracy. While the Queen in Great Britain extends her hand out to the common folk, the American President has been known to go to around the country greeting his constituents kissing babies and shaking hands with people in the crowd. We are citizens of the United States rather than subjects of the Queen. Those in positions of authority (a successful CEO, for instance) can talk to the person preparing their food with a basic amount of respect which may not be the case in other places. This basic dignity for all tends to be engrained within the American character. The American character is something good and worthy of preservation. Unlike any other place in the world, one American holds another at a level of common humanity.
Without our institutions, there would no means to convey those principles which shape the American character to generations who may not study them directly. Democracy has failed time and again in this world (such as in Vietnam). This seems rather obvious, but it is also very difficult. As Ben Franklin is quoted to have said following the Constitutional Convention, we have “a republic, if you can keep it.” This is the key. Our form of government is not a democracy in its purest form in which all people are directly responsible for every decision, but rather a representative republic. It still depends on the people and is based on consent of the governed. However, as detailed by James Madison in Federalist No.10, there are checks and balances within this system to prevent tyranny of the majority in which the will of the many can oppress everyone else—something that plagued all preceding popular governments. This republican form informed by and designed to protect the idea of America is why popular government does not work everywhere and why we are so accustomed to that middle-class experience in which we all have ambitions that the lowest classes in other countries could not even imagine. The American idea is central to what makes it great because not only is its Founding unique in that it formed a country in which one need not be born here to be an American but also the institutions which are based on that idea and designed for its perpetuation.
The principles upon which this nation rests make it exceptional and its institutional forms have proven to be the most conducive to perpetuating what makes America great: the protection of the rights of all—majority and minority. America’s three branches of government were founded in such a way as to not hinder natural rights—those rights which we have been endowed with by our Creator. This nation is only great when it is equally so for all—the protection of those basic rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is fundamental to the American Experiment. This phrase encapsulates the essence of the idea that is America. It sounds simple but is extraordinarily difficult to maintain. This idea, as well as our forms and institutions, have allowed America to survive many tumultuous events and will continue to do so for generations to come.