A Country of Timeless and Universal Ideals


From Charles C.W. Cooke:

Today is my son’s first Independence Day.

He doesn’t know that, of course, because he’s only three-and-a-half months old. But my wife and I do, and we’ve attempted to mark the occasion nevertheless — in loco filius, if you will. As such, Jack will be dressed today in a special onesie (stylized picture of a milk bottle, “Come and Take It” tagline); he will wear his Old Glory sun hat; and he will be involved in all the festivities that the family has to offer. Naturally, none of this will make even the slightest bit of sense to him; as a matter of fact, today will be the same as is any other day in the life of a baby, just with more people around and a surfeit of BBQ. But you have to start somewhere, right?

Because Jack is three months old, it is acceptable for his parents to treat July Fourth as an excuse for the purchase of kitsch. But what about after that? What about when he is five? Or twelve? Or nineteen? As a native Brit, I am accustomed to the self-deprecating instincts that are the hallmark of British society, and I am acquainted, too, with the reflexive aversion to patriotism that is all-too customary in the birthplace of Western liberty. In consequence, I know that if I were to leave my son befuddled by America’s Independence Day proceedings, he would probably stay that way in perpetuity. And that would be a tremendous, unconscionable shame — a shame that, frankly, would reflect poorly on me.

Once they reach a certain age, we expect our children to know what is what. As soon as they start speaking, we begin to teach them right and wrong; once they are old enough to be trusted with responsibility, we monitor closely how it is being used; and, in a process that is hopefully never-ending, we make sure that they know as much about the world around them as they are capable of taking in. It is in pursuit of this lattermost goal that we designate national holidays. In May, we celebrate Memorial Day, lest we forget what we owe our ancestors. In January, we observe Martin Luther King Day, that we might bring to mind the most uncomfortable parts of our nation’s past. And on July Fourth we arrange an ostentatious display of patriotism, in resounding commemoration of the moment that a ragtag bunch of philosopher-king rebels set their revolutionary ideals before a candid world, and changed human history forever.

In certain quarters it is fashionable to disdain these occasions, and, in so doing, to treat the past as if it were wholly disconnected from the present. Indeed, staunch defenders of the American Founding are often told that to embrace modernity it is necessarily to jettison the antique. “Why,” it is asked, “do we celebrate these flawed men and their pieces of parchment? After all, John Adams couldn’t even have imagined Tinder.”

Though narrow, this critique is indisputably correct. John Adams could not have imagined Tinder, and I daresay that he had no conception of high-frequency trading, of synthetic fibers, or of advanced robots either. But, ultimately, that is irrelevant. The beauty of the American Founding was not that it provided a detailed roadmap that could predict the minutiae of the future in glorious perpetuity, but that it laid out for all people a set of timeless and universal ideals, the veracity and applicability of which are contingent upon neither the transient mood of the mob nor the present state of technology. Among those ideals are that “all men are created equal,” and that they “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”; that “Governments are instituted among Men” in order to “secure” their “rights”; that legitimate power derives “from the consent of the governed”; and that if any such government is seized or corrupted by tyrants, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” At times, the United States has failed disastrously to live up to these principles, and, on at least one occasion, significant forces within the union have rejected them outright. But that an ideal has been violated in no way undermines its value, and it seems patently obvious to me that the country has been blessed by having had an eloquent North star to which its downtrodden could point from their moments of need.

If July Fourth is to represent anything concrete, it should serve as a golden opportunity to ensure that that star does not wither or implode or disappear from public view. In Britain — a less propositional nation in which the constitution is uncodified, in which there are no indisputably “foundational” documents, and in which there are no widely celebrated national days of meaning — it can be difficult to convey the importance of core national values, whatever those may be. Americans, by contrast, have fallen heir to an embarrassment of riches. If I cannot explain to my son how lucky he is to have been born here — and if I cannot demonstrate what a heavy responsibility it is to keep the candle burning — I do not deserve to be called “Dad.”

In a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison outlined the didactic justification for the construction of the Bill of Rights. “Political truths declared in that solemn manner,” Madison proposed, tend to “acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” Such benefits are not limited to the Bill of Rights. Just as Americans will proudly cite the first ten Amendments in the course of defending the ordered liberty that is the birthright of all free men, so they are prone to cite the most explosive literature of the revolutionary era. If internalized and cherished, Abraham Lincoln argued, the Declaration of Independence would have the salutary effect of acting as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression,” for Jefferson’s work was not “a merely revolutionary document” but the embalming of “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”

Yes, even to three-month-olds. Come and take it.

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