Honoring the Land We Love
With the election over, we once again turn our attention to the future. That includes preparing for a new group of government officials to take office.
Therefore it seems timely to reflect on the principles of the American Founding, as we hope these principles will guide both our lawmakers and us.
It is a common practice for some people to focus on America’s past or current failings. Some even go so far as to claim The American Project is a failure or illegitimate because of these imperfections.
Contrast that world view with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of one of the great moral endeavors of our lifetime. We all agree that slavery was a failing in the early years of the Republic. We further agree that unequal treatment under the law in a post-slavery world was another failing. Yet, when faced with the latter challenge, Dr. King successfully led a change effort by appealing to higher principles.
Consider this excerpt from his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
We are touched because those powerful words appeal to timeless moral principles that are grounded in both our Declaration of Independence and the great moral traditions that precede our Founding.
Roger Pilon wrote the following in a 2002 Cato Institute booklet containing the Declaration of Independence and Constitution:
Appealing to all mankind, the Declaration’s seminal passage opens with perhaps the most important line in the document: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident.” Grounded in reason, “self-evident” truths invoke the long tradition of natural law, which holds that there is a “higher law” of right and wrong from which to derive human law and against which to criticize that law at any time. It is not political will, then, but moral reasoning, accessible to all, that is the foundation of our political system.
But if reason is the foundation of the Founders’ vision – the method by which we justify our political order – liberty is its aim. Thus, cardinal moral truths are these:
…that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.
We are all created equal, as defined by our natural rights; thus, no one has rights superior to those of anyone else. Moreover, we are born with those rights, we do not get them from government – indeed, whatever rights or powers government has come from us, from “the Consent of the Governed.” And our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imply the right to live our lives as we wish – to pursue happiness as we think best, by our own lights – provided only that we respect the equal rights of others to do the same. Drawing by implication upon the common law tradition of liberty, property, and contract – its principles rooted in “right reason” – the Founders thus outlined the moral foundations of a free society.
Dr. Pilon concluded his essay by writing:
In the end, however, no constitution can be self-enforcing. Government officials must respect their oaths to uphold the Constitution; and we the people must be vigilant in seeing that they do. The Founders drafted an extraordinarily thoughtful plan of government, but it is up to us, to each generation, to preserve and protect it for ourselves and for future generations. For the Constitution will live only if it is alive in the hearts and minds of the American people. That, perhaps, is the most enduring lesson of our experiment in ordered liberty.
A love for life and liberty with the freedom to pursue happiness, while seeking a deeper understanding of the moral underpinnings of natural law. In this time of great challenges and conflict, may all of us live up to that vision authored by our Founders as we strive to be engaged citizens who are vigilant stewards of freedom and opportunity for all Americans.