SPECIAL TO THE CALDWELL JOURNAL (By Daniel B. Rundquist)…July is the month that Americans traditionally celebrate the founding of our nation. After the fireworks and parades are gone it is appropriate for the citizens to take some time for deeper reflection into our national heritage. While this broad subject has filled volumes by many writers over the past 241 years and I might also be capable to fill my share of pages, here I wish to focus on one thing only (and it is admittedly still too broad): what America means.
When we ask a reflective question such as I have posed, it may be best to ask others—an outsider—what America means. After all, if one wants to understand himself it is often better to ask someone else their opinion instead of simply believing what is convenient for us to believe of ourselves. The same logic applies here.
One of the finest and most thorough observations of early America comes to us by one Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterpiece work, Democracy in America. A French lawyer, he spent nine months in the United States in 1831 conducting over 200 interviews of the people. He records in detail what America means to him based upon his ground level experiences and conversations. I highly recommend that American readers today take the time to absorb his entire work, as I will only be able to touch on mere fragments of it here.
De Tocqueville’s observations are detailed and copious. He notes that America has so far (to 1831) maintained herself because of three primary reasons:
“The peculiar, and accidental, situation in which Providence [God] has placed the Americans…The second stems from the laws, The third derives from habits and mores.”
On the first note regarding Providence, de Tocqueville clearly senses the evidence that Americans of faith across more than two centuries from our Founding have also felt; that God Himself seemed to take a particular and focused interest in the American experiment of democracy:
“Their [the Americans’] fathers instilled in them a love of equality and liberty, but it was God himself who, by giving them a boundless continent, granted them the means to remain equal and free for a long time to come…It was then that North America was discovered, as if God had held it in reserve and it had only just emerged from the waters of the flood.”
This is a dramatic observation by him and one can even sense nearly a note of jealousy here. The notion that God “held in reserve” part of the planet for the eventual emergence of Americans—not for the French, not for the other nations of the world prior or in the future, but for one specific purpose—is a provocative one to ponder.
On his second note of the laws, he reflects upon America’s exceptionalism—an exception to the way other governments ruled over their people. Prior to America the norm of all governments past and present were despotism and tyranny resulting in millennia of wasted human potential of the masses and universal suffering. America was designed differently, he writes:
“In America, the people choose those who make the law and those who carry it out…Institutions are democratic not only in principle but in their ramifications…it is the majority that governs in the people’s name…that majority consists mainly of peaceful citizens who, whether by taste or interest, sincerely desire what is good for the country.”
The American Revolution created a tidal wave of similar democratic activity in so many other places around the globe that the cause of liberty could no longer be contained by despotic governments.
“In democratic republics, the power that guides society is not stable, for it often changes hands, and goals. But wherever it turns its attention, its force is almost irresistible.”
The America of today is different that it was in 1831, of course. Back then we had low taxation and annual elections of our representatives. But even then, America was not without her flaws. We must remember always that our country is merely the “more perfect union” and not the perfect union. We may believe that God blessed us with His favor, but imperfect people rule the nation. Some of the very same issues we have today were not only evident in 1831, but the seeds of errors to come:
“I have heard Americans speak of their homeland. I have met with true patriotism among the people; I have often searched for it in vain among their leaders.”
It is all too often the case in America across all periods where our elected representatives seem to be out of step with the sensibilities and ideas of the citizens who elect them. On this topic alone I could also write chapters, but the hard evidence of such prolonged malfeasance is to be seen all around us and not a small result of the balance of the national debt today.
When once we see that the laws of our nation have had a detrimental effect on the people we often turn to lawyers for assistance to navigate through the courts in an attempt to discover justice and restore liberty. And we cannot help but to notice that many of our candidates for elected office are also expensive lawyers. Americans, however, may not be best served in this way according to de Tocqueville. A lawyer himself, he explains how relying upon lawyers to uphold freedom in America could be a mistake:
“What lawyers love above all is a life of order, and the greatest guarantee of order is authority. One must not forget, moreover, that while lawyers may prize liberty, they generally place a far higher value on legality. They are less afraid of tyranny than arbitrariness, and so long as the legislator himself sees to it that men are deprived of their independence, the lawyer is more or less content…The courts are the most visible of the organs that lawyers use to influence democracy.”
This may be a difficult notion for Americans to receive from an outsider looking in. De Tocqueville’s view that the general outlook of lawyers (no offense to lawyers of present company intended) is at heart not overly concerned with the national preservation of liberty, and that they are dispassionate and even
content with lawmakers eliminating it. This was at a time when lawyers dominated in congress and which might have been a concern to the electorate.
Surely this negative description is not to be applied to every lawyer, and in fact the percentage of lawyers in congress is on a steady decline. In a recent study by Mr. Nick Robinson at Harvard Law School shows that, “In the mid-19th century almost 80% of members were lawyers. By the 1960s, under 60% were, and by 2016 less than 40%.” So if the notion of “too many lawyers in Congress” has kept you awake at night, rest easy.
Is America now the “land of the free” whereby the modern definition is taken to understand that our government is the clearinghouse for our earnings, taking money from one citizen to give “free” things to someone else? Was this the vision of our Founders? De Tocqueville saw a danger in the evolution of a social state whose primary focus shifts away from its principles of personal liberty and instead only to personal gains by whatever means, legal or not:
“When everyone is constantly seeking to change places, and all are free to enter a vast competitive arena, and riches are accumulated and dissipated in the blink of an eye under tumultuous conditions of democracy, the mind becomes acquainted with the idea of sudden and easy fortune and of great wealth easily won and lost, as well as with the image of chance in all its forms. The instability of the social state encourages the natural instability of human desires. Amid these perpetual fluctuations of fate, the present looms large; it hides the future, which fades from view, and men no longer wish to think about tomorrow.”
The worry that occurs when Americans stop thinking and planning for tomorrow is reflected in a dangerous decay of societal norms such as we are witnessing today. If America is to remain a nation at all, it is incumbent on its citizens to attempt in earnest to fix this problem. De Tocqueville saw far ahead of his time in 1831 as he continues to offer a solution for us:
“Governments must strive to restore men’s taste for the future, which is no longer inspired by religion and the social state, and without saying so they must teach citizens the daily practical lesson that wealth, fame, and power are the rewards for work; that great success comes to those who sustain the desire for it over a long period of time; and that nothing durable is acquired without effort.”
American society has in fact been teaching children just the opposite for at least two generations now. We hand out “participation trophies” in an errant attempt to prop up self-esteem. Now, our young citizens can no longer accept the flawed notion that success is something owed or given to them without effort and ability. For this we must equip them with the truth, the tools, and the drive to achieve that which will sustain the liberty of the United States of America for generations to come.
Note: Read more from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. The Library of America series, ISBN 978-1-931082-54-5