Updated: Nov 11
The American war is over; but this far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the drama is closed. – John Adams to Richard Price, 1786 But what is Government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? – The Federalist No. 51 If they break this Union, they will break my heart. – Alexander Hamilton’s last words
Addressing the Crack
Uneasily retired at Mount Vernon, General George Washington sat at his desk in deep anxiety. It was 1786, and the new nation was in trouble. This time, no army could help.
What nation? The authority I observe, thought the average citizen as the smoke of war dispersed, the center of my allegiance, is that of my own region. The government established during the Revolutionary War by the Articles of Confederation wasn’t a national one, and everybody knew it. It was a fragile alliance. When Americans said “my country,” they meant places like Virginia or Massachusetts.
“No morn ever dawned more favorable,” wrote Washington to John Jay, “than ours did—and no day was ever more clouded than the present…”
In the state governments and in the sporadically attended Constitutional Convention, partisanship and bickering were relentless. Some of the politicians who promised to end taxes used resounding rhetoric and appeals to patriotism to block important legislation as well as foreign policy planning. Outside the hallowed halls, clergy summoned hellfire and perdition to stop a bill for religious freedom.
“What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing!” wrote Washington, who had once described battle as bringing on a rumpus. “I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror…What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious!”
Jay agreed. Citizens, he feared, "will be led, by the insecurity of property, the losing of confidence in their rulers, and the want of public faith and rectitude, to consider the charms of liberty imaginary and delusive." Then they would welcome whoever promised them security.
Won at great cost against unbelievable odds, the brittle Union was in peril. Conspiracy theories abounded. The founders feared them because one had triggered the Revolutionary War: King George III’s delusion that the colonists’ peace overtures and insistence on staying British were lies to hide their agenda for independence. He was utterly convinced of this. He was also completely wrong.
The answer for conflicting loyalties, Washington had told Jay after the War, was an overarching framework of unity: “We are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote and a National character to support…”
In some ways our politically polarized time is not so different. One of the few things we Americans agree on is our deepening suspicion of our government. Of the two dominant political parties, neither offers any compelling vision for healing the splits running through our politics, communities, families, and divided hearts. The public agenda of the Republican National Committee is outright Christian nationalism and American superiority, an agenda that would have horrified even the Christian founders of the nation. The agenda of the Democratic National Committee consists largely of what it opposes along with references to social support and the protection of rights. Unchecked social media operatives work night and day to deepen the splits in the national soul.
As of September 2023, Americans’ distrust in government reached a new level. According to a national survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, four times as many of us held an unfavorable view of both parties—an all-time high—than in 2002. 87% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats say the two parties focus more on fighting each other than on solving problems. That only 16% of the public trusts the federal government hits a 70-year low. Two in three said they often feel “exhausted” when thinking about politics, described by the top two words “divisive” and “corrupt.” What is the biggest problem with our political system? 31% said: Politicians.
“When there is no vision,” warns Proverbs 28:18 of the King James Version, “the people perish.” The Christian Standard Bible gives an updated translation: “Without revelation people run wild.”
After a recent dream in which a Latina figure named Usa addressed me, I reflected that the never-healed crack in the bronze Liberty Bell echoes a split in us and between us. The bell predates the Revolution, and so does the split. Ordered by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751, the bell bears an inscription: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” It cracked on the first test ring, was recast, and cracked again in 1846 when rung on Washington’s birthday. The crack runs up through the word “Liberty.”
Formerly known as the State House Bell, it was renamed Liberty Bell in 1830 by abolitionists. Starting just after the Civil War, the bell embarked on a series of national tours, at that time to remind Americans of coming together for independence. A suffragist version, the Justice Bell, called for women to get the vote, which arrived with the 19th Amendment.
Why did the bell crack? A literal explanation would point to some metallurgical flaw when the bell was cast that persisted through recasting and all repair attempts. On the level of symbolism, the crack reminds us of the unhealed split between rich and poor, settler and immigrant, men and women, White and Black, hetero and queer, red states and blue, America as triumphalist ideology and America as suffering lands and waters. The bell is cracked, and injustice and discord clang throughout the nation.
We are in a dangerous struggle for maturity. That kind of crisis cannot be solved by force, or by some lone genius heading an army of sidekicks. It must be outgrown by citizens working together. We face an opportunity as enormous as our crisis: to complete the Revolution by showing the world what a truly inclusive democracy of the responsible can look like.
I am an American who was born here and has lived here all his life. My ancestors arrived in Virginia in 1630 (Pyland), Massachusetts in 1632 (Legg), Massachusetts again in 1637 (Trowbridge), Maryland in the late 1600s (McKenzie), and Nebraska in the mid-1850s (Challquist). I yearn for visions of how things could be here, not just dismal news about how things are, and I am not alone. Growing numbers of us are sick of the politics of fear and division, intolerance and hate.
What might living together in peace and prosperity look like? How can we be a more just and inclusive nation if we can’t imagine how together?
What follows is one American’s view of what must be included in any adequate vision yet to be collectively imagined—the crucial first step!—of the healing, mature, and whole America of my own desire, and perhaps yours as well. I hope this view will encourage people to come up with their own so that we who love this country deeply can take steps together in dreaming its better angels forward.
First, a few considerations.
Preliminaries to Visioning
Which “America” are we talking about? Two continents, North and South? Central America, which joins them? Fifty-seven countries live within “the Americas”: a big chunk of the Western Hemisphere.
The name “America” first marked what is now South America on a small French map drawn in 1507 by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The naming honored Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci, who claimed exploratory voyages to the “New World.” Amerigo derives from the Gothic Amalrich, literally “work-ruler,” although many of us might consider “work-ruled” more accurate, at least these days.
Although what follows refers to the United States of America, its first colonists got into the habit of using “America,” a far broader designation, to mean only themselves. This is problematic. When asked by interviewers to think of a country whose name begins with “U,” many Americans failed to reply, “United States of America,” let alone any others. In English, “United Statesian” is awkward. So I will keep to the national habit; more space than an essay is needed to resolve this issue.
A second item: Is America a democracy? At the national level it is a plutocracy, ruled by hidden wealth. Senators, Supreme Court justices, ex-presidents, and other public figures are given unstated privileges, receive unofficial perks, and are treated better by the justice system than the rest of us. Corporate lobbyists dominate Washington. Super-wealthy elites enjoy far more say in public matters than you or I do. Where wealth is concerned, equal rights nearly always give way. (“Plutocracy” derives from Pluto, the shadowy Underworld god who heaped up treasures in his deadly invisible realm. Mortals had to die just to view them. Sharing them was out of the question.)
The founders harbored concerns about democracy, chief among them the fear of unbridled populism leading to mob rule and eventual dictatorship. To manage this threat, the founders created a republic: government by the people through representation. Because the people elect their representatives, the country is, technically speaking, a representative democracy. To ask, “Republic or democracy?” misses the point of the experiment, which was to combine elements of both.
As thirteen presidential libraries affirmed together in September 2023,
As a diverse nation of people with different backgrounds and beliefs, democracy holds us together. We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount. At the same time, we live among our fellow citizens, underscoring the importance of compassion, tolerance, pluralism, and respect for others… Debate and disagreement are central features in a healthy democracy. Civility and respect in political discourse, whether in an election year or otherwise, are essential.
Third, let us avoid two extremes: surrounding the founders and the country with bright clouds of glorious idealizing, or disparaging the entire enterprise as a worthless example of murderous, racist colonization. “The mindlessly celebratory and the naively judgmental responses to the founders,” writes historian Joseph Ellis, “are in fact complementary cartoons…a melodrama populated only by heroes or villains.” Evolving into a more mature union requires exercising the adult capacity for accepting ambiguity.
Here I’m reminded of Sigmund Freud. One Freud made insulting jokes about women, gave them creepy misdiagnoses, and regarded women theoretically as stunted, castrated men. Another Freud trained his daughter Anna to be an analyst, financially supported Lou Andreas Salome, and told her in a letter that she was the best analyst of all of them. Was Freud sexist, or a champion of able women? He was both. A mature view sees him whole, a psychological feat more difficult but more worthy than either worshipping him with childlike awe or dismissing him with all his works.
Those founders of America whom we would either idealize or despise were, in the end, human beings. They did glorious things and they made fatal mistakes. It remains one of the great and bloody tragedies of our history that Thomas Jefferson, for example, the man who sounded the very heart of the American ethos in one treasured sentence, failed to address in one ripe moment, the Louisiana Purchase, the fragile fortunes of countless Black and Indian people, leaving them in a subjugation like that of his slaves, bequeathed after his death to wife and sons instead of freed in accord with this truth of truths:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.
These words form the living heart of the Declaration of Independence—the remainder is grievances and apologetics—which signaled the birth of the republic and of a grand experiment in national self-governance. At their worst, the founders remind me of the Gnostic figure of the Demiurge, a pompous, reckless creator who blew his breath into spiritless Adam and thereby wrought a miracle both dark and bright, a creation surpassing its creator, who was the unwitting but effective tool of his wiser mother Sophia. Marvels can arise from unlikely sources.
Battered and stumbling, the perilous experiment, “patched and piebald” as John Adams put it, continues. Even so persistent and thoughtful a critic as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refused to give up on it. “I may not get there with you,” he said in a speech on the day before he was shot. “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” The last line of his last speech was the first line of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
What appears below seeks to extend the better aspirations of the founders of the USA. We have the power to complete their vision by dreaming it onward, not only refounding the republic, but reenchanting it as well, starting with repairing and evolving our guiding philosophy. I invite you to conduct your own imaginings for this. What would the inspiring America of your desire be like?
...That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Notice the words in bold. Printed on July 4, 1776, they open the door to self-evident truths besides these three. Self-evident means irreducible, axiomatic, clear to reason, and not in need of further proof. (Jefferson’s original words were “sacred and undeniable,” but they were changed, probably by Benjamin Franklin, with Jefferson’s approval.)
To self-evident truths belong foundational principles, ten of which are listed below. I imagine them included within a Declaration of Interdependence: not a replacement for the first declaration, but a second one for our troubled time. The principles also work as goals. First, a statement of intent:
Foundational truths need new formulations as the times advance. The course of human events now requires that we who love our country reimagine, in good faith, the present and future governance of the United States of America. Our governing institutions have been subverted by a reckless greed, backed by ceaseless propaganda, that attacks the very surface of our homeworld. Only through imaginative, collaborative, and courageous endeavor can we realize our right to govern ourselves, manage our own lives, protect our families, engage in meaningful work, and house justice, equity, inclusivity, safety, and security in a stronger and fairer nation where none are left behind.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, and many others have observed, some even before 1776, true love of one’s country demands the courage to be critical of where our relations with one another fall short and need improvement. Attacking critics expresses fear and repressed uncertainty. Unlike exceptionalism and nationalism, genuine patriotism is open-minded and inclusive. “All men are created equal” must mean all, everyone, We the People, and not just men. Either we all receive equal respect and opportunity, or no one can be either safe or equal. Insisting that “all” means “all” is an example of growing the original seed planted by the founders into a mature tree of liberty.
Principle #1: Unity in Diversity.
The root of all democratic self-governance is finding common ground through our differences from and similarities to one another. All major structures of government should tend this enriching interplay of difference.
The cosmos is built on diversity. So is all ecological being. Life as we know it began once the first cell raised a chemical boundary between its interior and its surroundings. Unity depends on diversity: without it, nothing remains to unify.
Under names like “plurality,” “multiplicity,” and “difference,” diversity shows up continually at every level of the nation’s founding. Soldiers of the Continental Army were farmers, shopkeepers, mechanics, scholars, vagabonds, immigrants, and men of many colors. Members of the Continental Congress came from places north and south, urban and rural, from a variety of backgrounds and an age spread from 20s to 80s. The very structure of government—separation of powers, a Supreme Court, state vs. federal, the houses of Congress—assumes differences of view and background and the need to debate and negotiate.
The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of Government.
– Federalist No. 10
In a free Government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases, will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of People comprehended under the same Government.
– Federalist No. 51
For James Madison, this vital clash of views would only increase as the nation grew and more voices joined the chorus. He thought it good and necessary. “It is not in numbers,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “but in unity, that our great strength lies.”
The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind.
– John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 1818
“Unity in diversity” is similar to E Pluribus Unum, “One from Many,” emblazoned on the Great Seal of the US. It derives from the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras. The main difference is the “in,” which updates and balances the statement.
The principle of unity in diversity strikes a balance between two extremes. False sameness arises when we maintain blindness to real differences, especially of experience. If a police officer pulls me over, I take for granted as a White male that I probably won’t be assaulted or hauled off to jail. If I apply for a job I’m qualified for, I stand a good chance of landing it. When I walk down the street at night, depending on where I am, I normally don’t worry about being attacked. Not everyone can safely make such assumptions. I did not cultivate this status; it just exists, and ignoring it is unrealistic. The notion that everyone enjoys equal treatment when the contrary is painfully true for millions overlooks crucial social and historical imbalances that linger, blocking authentic unity.
The other extreme involves valuing only difference to the detriment of finding common ground. I see this bias all the time in higher ed, where, at least in my circles, I have never heard anyone say they are patriotic or love this country. One result of overemphasizing difference is the kind of rigid identity politics that acknowledge differences but ignore important issues that reach across groups. A politician friend of mine refers to this as the liberal circular firing squad.
In our time of intense political polarization, we find upon looking back a concern among the founders about political parties which despise one another. “The greatest good we can do our country,” wrote Jefferson to moderate John Dickinson, “is to heal its party divisions & make them one people. I do not speak of their leaders who are incurable, but of the honest and well-intentioned body of the people…” Striking a psychological note, he continued: “It is very important that the pure federalist and republican should see in the opinion of each other but a shade of his own, which by a union of action will be lessened by one-half: that they should see & fear the monarchist as their common enemy, on whom they should keep their eyes…”
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
–Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789.
“There is nothing which I dread so much,” John Adams admitted to Jonathan Jackson, “as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Principle #2: Democracy for All.
The basis of government is the will of the people. The more inclusive a democracy, the stronger it is and the longer it will last.
Why do we need government at all? As James Madison pointed out, we wouldn’t if we were angels. In John Jay’s terms, we are mixed with gold and dross. If we must have government, let it be a democracy, which Winston Churchill would one day call the worst of all possible forms of government “except for all the others that have been tried.”
In the States we have some degree of political democracy, especially at the local and regional levels, but very little economic democracy. We will not as long as the powerful control what the rest of us need to live. We have little recourse, for example, against a pharmaceutical company that charges thousands of unaffordable dollars for a cheaply made medicine we require, or against a company that brutally informs us via email that we no longer have a job. The very operating systems we rely on to work and communicate update at the whim of their owners.
In times of uncertainty, many look for a powerful father figure to follow. The founders knew this and feared it. When “moderates” waited for King George to come around, John Adams compared it to awaiting a messiah who would never come. In “Loyalty and Sedition,” Samuel Adams wrote, “It is a very great mistake to imagine that the object of loyalty is the authority and interest of one individual man, however dignified by the applause or enriched by the success of popular actions.” In another essay (1748) he stated,
We must not conclude merely upon a man's haranguing upon liberty, and using the charming sound, that he is fit to be trusted with the liberties of his country. It is not unfrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty—to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves.
In a letter to James Warren, “If ever the Time should come,” John Adams worried out loud, “when vain & aspiring Men shall possess the highest Seats in Government, our Country will stand in Need of its experienced Patriots to prevent its Ruin.” His Novanglus Essays cite political philosophers defining a republic as “a government of laws, and not of men.”
In a letter written in March of 1776, Abigail Adams included a reminder for her husband:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency -- and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
To Benjamin Franklin, addressing the Constitutional Convention in 1787, constitutional government could prove a lasting benefit, but it would “end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” Written by James Madison, Federalist Paper #47 went further: “The accumulation of all powers, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
At the end of the Revolutionary War, calls rose to make Washington a dictator or king. Instead, he resigned his commission and went back to Mount Vernon. He considered calls for absolute authority “the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” King George marveled when he heard that Washington had given up command. After two terms reluctantly served as president, Washington did it again.
Participating in a democracy demands a capacity for tolerating fears that arise in uncertain times. No paternal savior will rescue us from them. This requires staying in one’s adult self rather than regressing to the frightened child-within. The founders called for skepticism of anyone peddling easy, oversimplified answers. Jefferson upbraided William Charles Jarvis for this:
You seem to consider the federal judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions, a very dangerous doctrine, indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have with others the same passions for the party, for power and the privilege of the corps. Their power is the more dangerous, as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control.
Jefferson speculated that consolidation of power could arrive through the federal judiciary and from there corrupt the other two branches of government:
Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add "within the limits of the law" because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual (Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany).
He went into more detail in a letter to Adamantios Coray:
At the establishment of our constitutions, the judiciary bodies were supposed to be the most helpless and harmless members of the government. Experience, however, soon showed in what way they were to become the most dangerous; that the insufficiency of the means provided for their removal gave them a freehold and irresponsibility in office; that their decisions, seeming to concern individual suitors only, pass silent and unheeded by the public at large; that these decisions, nevertheless, become law by precedent, sapping, by little and little, the foundations of the constitution, and working its change by construction, before any one has perceived that that invisible and helpless worm has been busily employed in consuming its substance. In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life, if secured against all liability to account.
“Optimism with discernment” might be a good description of the founders’ attitude toward the citizens upon whom the enterprise of democracy depended. Authoritarianism and tyranny rest on cynicism about human nature, otherwise why go to such oppressive lengths to control it? Whatever their initial feelings about “the masses,” the founders recognized real strength and integrity in how readily, hearing of George III’s rejection of peace overtures, the people—not just attorneys, planters, and statesmen, but farmers, blacksmiths, wranglers, and maids—got behind what they called “The Cause” while talking it over in shops, coffeehouses, and taverns.
Noting this, Samuel Adams also saw the dangers of thoughtless populism:
Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man (The Advertiser).
“Liberty,” Jefferson told John Taylor, is no mere possession, but implies “thought and choice and power.”
Even Alexander Hamilton, distruster of democracy and advocate of a strong executive, believed that a properly managed democracy could endure, as he told Gouverneur Morris:
That instability is inherent in the nature of popular governments, I think very disputable; unstable democracy, is an epithet frequently in the mouths of politicians…When the deliberative or judicial powers are vested wholly or partly in the collective body of the people, you must expect error, confusion and instability. But a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.
In The Farmer Refuted he argued that
The origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact, between the rulers and the ruled; and must be liable to such limitations, as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter; for what original title can any man or set of men have, to govern others, except their own consent? To usurp dominion over a people, in their own despite, or to grasp at a more extensive power than they are willing to entrust, is to violate that law of nature, which gives every man a right to his personal liberty; and can, therefore, confer no obligation to obedience.
There were limits to Hamilton’s advocacy of a strong executive, as he notes in Federalist #72:
An ambitious man, too, when he found himself seated on the summit of his country's honors, when he looked forward to the time at which he must descend from the exalted eminence for ever, and reflected that no exertion of merit on his part could save him from the unwelcome reverse; such a man, in such a situation, would be much more violently tempted to embrace a favorable conjuncture for attempting the prolongation of his power, at every personal hazard, than if he had the probability of answering the same end by doing his duty.
In #75 he sounded an additional warning: “An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the State to the acquisition of wealth. An ambitious man might make his own aggrandizement, by the aid of a foreign power, the price of treachery to his constituents.” Adams issued a similar warning about those who are “slaves to the love of fame.”
In the end, said Adams to Jefferson,
The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally arbitrary, cruel, bloody, and in every respect diabolical.
He added: “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views, beyond the comprehension of the weak.” Washington agreed. When Lord Howe had offered him and the colonies a pardon from King George, “Those who have committed no fault,” Washington replied, “want no pardon.” They would continue defending their rights. When John Adams heard himself called “founder” and “father,” he said those terms belonged to the American people in general.
According to the journal of James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, on the last day a lady asked Franklin: What have we got, a republic or a monarchy? Franklin replied: "A republic, if you can keep it."
The power of change dwells not with the exalted and powerful, but with the lowly and common.
Principle #3: Economic and Political Liberty.
Political liberty means little when citizens are subjected to economic equality or lack of control over the economic forces that impact them. A basic task of government is to ensure that no one suffers financial hardship imposed by others.
In the general course of human nature, a power over a man's subsistence amounts to a power over his will.
– Federalist #79
Although Hamilton was talking about the need for judges to be financially independent, the principle he lays out applies more widely. In our day, the lives of an unprecedented number of people are at the mercy of those who control what we need for our safety, health, and survival.
From the beginning, the founders were suspicious of the power wielded by financial institutions. Banks, for example. “I sincerely believe,” Jefferson agreed with John Taylor, “with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” In the same letter, he called banking “a blot on the constitution, which is already hit by the gamblers in corruption…” Both Jefferson and Madison died bankrupt.
Although Jefferson was well known to oppose centralized finance, believing that national banks would favor the moneyed class over everyone else, he was not alone in distrusting banks. Like him, John Adams, much more a nationalist and federalist than Jefferson, shared his own concerns with Taylor: “Banks have done more injury to the religion, morality, tranquility, prosperity, and even wealth of the nation than they can have done or ever will do good.”
Another issue was debt. Jefferson again, this time to Samuel Kercheval: “I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.” He mentioned debt again to William Plumer: “I, however, place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.”
Before the Revolutionary War, Washington and his wife were among the wealthiest of Virginians. Like other wealthy planters, however, they were also deeply in debt to merchants in Britain, debt they could not get out from under. Their wealth was in land and slaves, not cash. The Washingtons got paid once a year for their tobacco crop, which sometimes did well and sometimes poorly. The British merchants they bought from charged whatever they liked without regulation.
Student loan debt relief is in the news just now. One argument is that when you take on debt, it’s up to you to pay it off. Aside from how some who argue this took pandemic relief money without paying it back, high interest rates guarantee that a significant number of graduates will never get free of their loans even if they make every payment. (I paid mine back, but it took twenty years and prevented me from buying a house.) Multiply that dilemma by 45 million borrowers owing more than $1.6 trillion in federal loans and another $.7 trillion in private ones. Meanwhile, cost of tuition rises.
Why take on such debt? Because the US seldom subsidizes as much higher education as many other national governments do. For example, a clinical psychologist who worked as core faculty in my department was trained in a country where the government paid for his education. Also, many higher-paying jobs require a college degree, and over the past fifty years, the college cost has tripled (National Center for Education Statistics). Most schools I’ve worked for did not receive governmental or other endowments, a gap reflected in their cost of tuition. The former scenario of an adult with a high school diploma buying a house for himself and his family is almost unheard of now.
Little wonder interest has risen in attending college abroad. Germany, Iceland, and Norway do not charge tuition at all. Austria, Finland, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, India, Taiwan, Poland, Malaysia, and the UK charge very low tuition compared to the US.
Student loans are only one kind of debt. By the numbers, the average US citizen is $58,604 in debt, with 77% of US households holding some debt (Ramsey Solutions). There is also the US debt owned by other nations: $1.1 trillion owned by Japan, $859 billion owned by China, and $668 billion owned by the UK (Center for Global Development).
A tax system designed to be fair instead of favoring the ultra-wealthy, whose multinational corporations often pay no taxes at all, would help a lot, as Jefferson pointed out long ago to James Madison: “…a means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” Some of the nations that subsidize higher education also make their wealthiest citizens pay their fair share in taxes. Citizens of other nations are often baffled by the ideological resistance to this in the US, where even billionaires have called for a fairer tax structure.
All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.
– Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice
The resistance to taxation nearly dissolved the Continental Army. The colonies refused to be taxed to pay for it, somehow believing that the men would fight without pay or supplies. Washington complained about this often and bitterly. Only when financier Robert Morris stepped in with funding was the army adequately equipped in time to participate in the Siege of Yorktown. Even so, Morris, a signer of the Declaration and the Constitution, was vilified, as Franklin had predicted, as Superintendent of Finance at a time when the printed money of Congress was worthless and internationally condemned as such: “You are sure to be censured by malevolent Criticks and Bug Writers, who will abuse you while you are serving them, and wound your Character in nameless Pamphlets…”
Morris proposed funding the government, invigorating the currency, and keeping down food prices with a 5% duty on imports, a national bank, federal assumption of state debts, a modest land tax, and a liquor tax—and was promptly attacked by self-styled “True Whigs” and “those vulgar souls,” as he put it, disgusted, “whose narrow Opticks can see but the little Circle of their selfish concerns.” Madison considered these attacks a kind of paranoid vendetta. Although Washington and Hamilton sided with Morris against those unwilling to spend enough to keep the country going, Morris eventually resigned.
The founders also worried that large incorporated entities could harm the public financially. Madison addressed this, for example, in “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments” (also known as “Detached Memoranda”):
The danger of silent accumulations & encroachments by Ecclesiastical Bodies have not sufficiently engaged attention in the U.S … But besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The power of all corporations, ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses.
In a letter to George Logan, Jefferson wrote, “I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Rather than gouge Americans purchasing a vital resource, especially in winter, Franklin turned down a patent offer from George Thomas, Governor of Pennsylvania, for a new stove design:
Governor Thomas was so pleas'd with the Construction of this Stove, as describ'd in it, that he offer'd to give me a Patent for the sole Vending of them for a Term of Years; but I declin'd it from a Principle which has ever weigh'd with me on such Occasions, viz. That as we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of Others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to Serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.
Franklin would never have agreed that such an act diminished him or the recipients, socialistically or otherwise, because he understood kindness to be a multiplicative power rooted in abundance. “The Ben Franklin Effect” is named so because of his discovery that being kind to someone increases the giver’s liking for them more than receiving something would: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
Giving is not a deficit. Kindness begets kindness. “There is, in the human Breast,” wrote John Adams to his wife, “a social Affection, which extends to our whole Species.”
Principle #4: Care and Education for All.
Everyone has a right to life-supporting resources like food, water, safety, shelter, healthcare, communications, transportation, current news, and basic education. Depriving anyone of them is never justified.
…The form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.
–John Adams, Thoughts on Government
Unlike the more privileged founding figures, Thomas Paine knew hardship. The son of a tenant farmer, he took up the life of a privateer (legalized piracy) at age 19, quit, then lost his pregnant wife and child to death around the time his corset-making business fell apart. Later, after he lost his Excise Officer job, he was a teacher in London, but only temporarily. While collecting tithes and taxes for the poor, he saw people even worse off than he had been. After another business failure, he barely avoided going to prison for debt. Meeting Franklin in London, he emigrated to the American colonies after an arduous sea voyage that killed some of his fellow travelers. He arrived too sick to disembark without help from Franklin’s doctor.
People who survive numerous hardships tend to exhibit one of two later responses: they either try to forget and soothe themselves with the omnipotent fantasy of never having needed help—the fragile ego response; or, more commonly, they harbor forever after a deep sympathy for others faced with adversity. Paine was of the latter type, which is why he wrote about “the moral obligation of providing for old age, helpless infancy, and poverty.”
When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, then may the country boast of its constitution and its government.
–Paine, Agrarian Justice
Compared to Paine, Jefferson emerged from a gilded cradle into a life of wealth, study, and law. Yet he too kept an eye on the less fortunate. “Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor,” he wrote to James Madison, “it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on.”
Jefferson used the last part of his first State of the Union address, which he delivered in writing, to examine the question of naturalization:
Considering the ordinary chances of human life, a denial of citizenship under a residence of 14 years is a denial to a great proportion of those who ask it…and shall we refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe? The Constitution indeed has wisely provided that for admission to certain offices of important trust a residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design. But might not the general character and capabilities of a citizen be safely communicated to everyone manifesting a bona fide purpose of embarking his life and fortunes permanently with us?
Franklin had little formal schooling and came of age in printing shops. He resisted his father’s push to become a clergyman, in part because when he looked at how the church treated people in need, he saw hypocrisy, as he explained to Joseph Huey in 1753:
The Faith you mention has doubtless its use in the World; I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavour to lessen it in any Man. But I wish it were more productive of Good Works than I have generally seen it: I mean real good Works, Works of Kindness, Charity, Mercy, and Publick Spirit; not Holiday-keeping, Sermon-Reading or Hearing, performing Church Ceremonies, or making long Prayers, fill’d with Flatteries and Compliments, despis’d even by wise Men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity.
He contrasted these elaborate paraphernalia of control with the example set by Jesus, who preferred doers of the Word to mere hearers, such as
…the heretical but charitable Samaritan, to the uncharitable tho’ orthodox Priest and sanctified Levite: and those who gave Food to the hungry, Drink to the Thirsty, Raiment to the Naked, Entertainment to the Stranger, and Relief to the Sick, &c. tho’ they never heard of his Name, he declares shall in the last Day be accepted, when those who cry Lord, Lord; who value themselves on their Faith tho’ great enough to perform Miracles but have neglected good Works shall be rejected.
A basic safety net would invigorate American political freedom. Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and the Czech Republic have much lower poverty rates but higher voter turnout. Germany pays the unemployed 60% of previous salary for a year, and France, 75% for two years. According to data by the OECD, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and France all spend much more to support unemployment and labor market programs than the US does. In Europe, health coverage is universal rather than dependent on employment. These nations also have much lower income poverty rates among older citizens; for 66 years old and above, that of the US is 22.9%. All the countries just mentioned plus Japan and Australia have paid weeks of maternity from 14 (Japan) to 58 (Germany). The United States has zero.
The COVID-19 pandemic stretched these nets but, outside the US, seldom broke them.
In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 Years old, by the Smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by Inoculation. This I mention for the Sake of Parents who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.
– Ben Franklin, “On Immunization”
During the Revolutionary War, Washington took time to make sure Martha was inoculated against the smallpox ravaging towns and military camps.
Speaking of healthcare, Britain’s tax-funded National Health Service costs the government 7% of GDP per year. In 2021, the US spent 17.8% GDP on its gappy healthcare system: twice what Germany spent and four times what South Korea spent for better results. Disability benefit payments in the US stand just above the poverty level. By contrast, members of Congress have dozens of healthcare plans and options subsidized by the government. They also receive free outpatient care at military facilities in the District of Columbia. The problem is not that they receive these benefits, but that most of the nation does not. In 2021, more a third of congressional members held personal investments in the healthcare industry. Some of these members lacked the scruple to stay off healthcare committees (PLOS One, Penn Medicine News).
It must afford no small pleasure to a benevolent mind in the midst of a war, which daily makes so much havoc with the human species, to reflect, that the small-pox which once proved equally fatal to thousands, has been checked in its career, and in a great degree subdued by the practice of Inoculation.
– Dr. Benjamin Rush, The New Method of Inoculating for the Small-Pox
The US offers Medicare and Medicaid, but, as I learned while caring for two elderly parents, neither covers most dental care, hearing aids, eye exams, or, crucially, residential care not deemed “medically necessary.” Between a modest pension and Social Security, my mother’s “income” put her above the poverty line; as a result, she could not afford to remain in the house where my father died and my sister and I grew up. She had owned it since 1960. I helped her sell it in 2022. It was heartbreaking.
The US has a lot to learn about making sure people are cared for. Children’s lunches and free basic education should not even be controversial, let alone partisan. Neither should access to education.
Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.
–John Adams, Thoughts on Government
To Abigail Adams, he wrote:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children an right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Procelaine (1780).
Democracy requires an informed citizenry. Jefferson wrote Philadelphia bookseller Nicolas Gouin Dufief, who had been prosecuted for selling Regnault de Bécourt’s religiously controversial book The Creation of the World, which Jefferson had purchased:
I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason.
“It is impossible that the laws of Pensylvania,” he continued, “which set us the first example of the wholsome & happy effects of religious freedom, can permit these inquisitorial functions to be proposed to their courts. Under them you are surely safe.” To John Adams he had written that he could not live without books. Also, “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education & free discussion are the antidotes of both” (1816). To Col. Charles Yancey: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.” Jefferson would have regarded banning books as profoundly anti-American.
Adams agreed: “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights” (Education Agreeable to a Republican Form of Government). Also,
Civil liberty is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society. It is not a thing, in its own nature, precarious and dependent on human will and caprice; but it is conformable to the constitution of man, as well as necessary to the well-being of society.
In A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765), Adams wrote, “The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country.”
Human nature with all its infirmities and depravation is still capable of great things. It is capable of attaining to degrees of wisdom and goodness, which we have reason to believe, appear as respectable in the estimation of superior intelligences. Education makes a greater difference between man and man, than nature has made between man and brute.
–John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1775
“Temperate, sincere, and intelligent inquiry and discussion are only to be dreaded by the advocates of error,” wrote Benjamin rush. “The truth need not fear them” (Provisions of the Last Will and Testament of Dr. James Rush).
In the end, treating each other with dignity, respect, and care builds the only solid foundation of fairness.
Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one.
– Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814
Principle #5: Responsibility and Accountability for All.
Liberty must not be misunderstood as a license to do whatever one pleases regardless of consequences. Genuine liberty is supported and contained by how one’s actions impact others, and those who inflict harm must be held to account.
We have seen so many public figures utter the cry of outraged entitlement, “Do you know who I am?” when pulled over by agents of law enforcement that a privileged status for the famous or powerful has become normalized.
It shouldn’t be. The ex-politician who publicly attacks jury members of his corruption trial and receives no jail time; the ultra-wealthy financier who gets off with a light sentence, if any; a CEO who fires people he disagrees with; the disparity of arrest and incarceration numbers between races; the science and education institutes that hide scandals committed by donors: these few examples lack the consequences received by the rest of us for breaking laws or endangering fellow citizens.
Conflicts of interest involving all branches of government are now commonplace in the nation where Ben Franklin refused to intercede when his son was arrested for being a British Loyalist. Not even Franklin’s daughter-in-law could persuade him to change his mind.
A lax manner of administering justice, falsely termed moderation, has a tendency both to dispirit public virtue, and promote the growth of public evils.
– Thomas Paine, The American Crisis
Aggressive propaganda is nothing new, as President Washington found out when the National Gazette began attacking his policies, but no founder could have predicted the magnitude of amplified hatred and lying blasting out of social media and biased news stations with instantaneous access to audiences around the world.
I deplore with you the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, & mendacious spirit of those who write for them…These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief. That this has in a great degree been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit I agree with you...
–Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814
Before the Revolutionary War, 150 separately owned newspapers circulated through the colonies. Today, 90% of news sources are owned by six corporations: National Amusements (which owns CBS and Viacom, now merged), AT&T, Time Warner (which owns CNN and Time Magazine), Comcast (which owns NBC and MSNBC), News Corp (which owns Fox News), and Disney (which owns ABC). People outside the US often marvel at the smallness of our news focus: on us for the most part. One must read international news to get any real sense of what is happening. (The six biggest media companies are, in order, Comcast, Disney, AT&T, Paramount Global, Sony, and Fox.)
If a man makes the press utter atrocious things he becomes as answerable for them as if he had uttered them by word of mouth. Mr. Jefferson has said in his inaugural speech, that “error of opinion might be tolerated, when reason was left free to combat it.” This is sound philosophy in cases of error. But there is a difference between error and licentiousness.
–Thomas Paine, Liberty of the Press
Social media content is largely unregulated and so contains, in addition to valuable information, the worst of the hatred, pettiness, sadism, cruelty, divisiveness, and sheer lack of taste of which humanity is capable. The loudest voices pull societies apart and radicalize populations as effectively as any cult. In the past, joining with other white supremacists required discreetly visiting others with the same mindset; today, thousands of such people are one mouse click away. The structures of democratic republic have scarcely begun to adapt to such existential challenges.
There ought to be some regulation with respect to the spirit of denunciation that now prevails. If every individual is to indulge his private malignancy or his private ambition, to denounce at random and without any kind of proof, all confidence will be undermined and all authority be destroyed. Calumny is a species of treachery that ought to be punished as well as any other kind of treachery. It is a private vice productive of public evils; because it is possible to irritate men into disaffection by continual calumny who never intended to be disaffected. It is therefore equally as necessary to guard against the evils of unfounded or malignant suspicion as against the evils of blind confidence. It is equally as necessary to protect the characters of public officers from calumny as it is to punish them for treachery or misconduct.
– Thomas Paine to George Danton, 1793
The essence of a free government consists in an effectual control of rivalries… Rivalries must be controlled, or they will throw all things into confusion; and there is nothing but despotism or a balance of power which can control them.
–John Adams, Discourses on Davila #13
Between 1982 and 2011, a mass shooting occurred in the US once every 200 days or so. Between 2011 and 2014, that rate rose to one every 64 days, tripling since 2011 (Harvard). By May 2022, there were 11 mass shootings a week. By 2023, the number was two a day (Axios). Mass shootings are now the leading cause of children’s deaths in the US. The gun violence homicide rate is rising steadily as well. Australia, Canada, the UK, Israel, France, Germany, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and even Amnesty International have issued travel advisories warning about gun violence in the US.
Violent crime has targeted individuals and groups from the LGBTQIA+ community and those with diverse ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. However, crime rates vary considerably across cities and suburbs and while tourists are rarely targeted, there is always a risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. –New Zealand travel advisory
Other nations with large numbers of firearm ownership (e.g., Switzerland and Canada) are not plagued by mass shootings. These nations enforce registration and screening procedures, ban citizens with a record of violence from owning guns (for obvious reasons: past violence is an excellent predictor of future violence), and do not allow private ownership of military weapons. Most mass shooters in the US obtain their guns legally. None are members of “a well-regulated militia” (2nd Amendment to the US Constitution).
It must be made a sacred maxim, that the militia obey the executive power, which represents the whole people in the execution of laws. To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defence, or by partial orders of towns, counties, or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government.
–John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government
He also wrote, “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty” (1772).
The founders also feared mob violence, of which they saw plenty before and during the Revolutionary War. Pro-British Loyalists were frequently beaten, stripped, tarred, feathered, and sometimes scalped and hung. Their families were assaulted, their homes burned down. “If they have real grievances redress them, if possible,” wrote Washington to Henry Lee in 1786; “or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to do it at the moment. If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once.”
As to riots and tumults, let those answer for them, who, by willful misrepresentations, endeavor to excite and promote them; or who seek to stun the sense of the nation, and to lose the great cause of public good in the outrages of a misinformed mob. We take our ground on principles that require no such riotous aid. We have nothing to apprehend from the poor; for we are pleading their cause. And we fear not proud oppression, for we have truth on our side.
–Thomas Paine, Address And Declaration At a Select Meeting Of The Friends Of Universal Peace And Liberty
Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.
All the founders agreed that when accountability is paramount and integrity the standard of behavior, no one, however influential or powerful, can be immune from being replaced in office when other remedies fail.
Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, of the people; and if the cause, the interest, and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute other and better agents, attorneys and trustees.
–John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)
Principle #6: Earth Care.
Liberty means nothing when the land and the elements are not safe to live among. A responsibility basic to citizens and governments alike is care of the natural world of which we are a part.
Men did not make the earth... It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property... Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds.
–Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice
Care of earth and nature was not always a partisan issue. In 1970, President Nixon, a Republican, declared the environment the defining issue of the 1970s. He went on to sign the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. He also oversaw the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Before him, another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, established 150 national forests, five national parks, and the first national monuments, bird reservations, and game preserves. (Teddy bears come from the refusal of Roosevelt, an avid hunter, to shoot a helpless tied-up black bear.)
In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to strengthen it, a move with bipartisan support. 39 Republicans voted yes, including John McCain and Mitch McConnel. Republicans have turned strongly anti-environmental only since 2008.
The first notable act of rebellion against the British took place in 1765 near a 120-year-old elm standing near Boston Common. A group of Patriots gathered to protest the Stamp Act. They came back when the Act was repealed and celebrated, hanging lamps from the tree and adding a plaque. The elm was renamed the Liberty Tree, a leafy hub under which protesters continued to meet. Paul Revere’s engraving “A View of the Year 1765” includes the tree in the background. When British soldiers chopped down the tree, the Sons of Liberty gathered at the stump.
Similarly symbolic Trees sprang up in other towns. A pine tree appeared on a flag flown in 1775 by frigates of the Continental Army.
The founders were farmers and gardeners who loved nature and sought to safeguard and nourish it.
Washington had a sharp eye for natural beauty. After trudging through snow during the war, he would pause to write in his journal about the glazed beauty of his surroundings. Before battle, he often collected himself by writing to the overseers of his landscaping at Mount Vernon. He wanted it to host a large garden with American plantings and longed for the day when “our Swords and Spears have given place to the plough share and pruning hook.” He liked to compare the new country to fertile land growing life unconfined by shaped imperial designs like cones and spheres. When he got home, he spent much of his day working alongside his laborers to rejuvenate the soil and plant trees. He preferred gardening books to tomes on politics. (His parents had named him appropriately: “George” means “farmer.”)
On the march, Washington ordered his troops wear green branches on their heads to distinguish them from the British. In 1777, he used the same practice in Philadelphia to give people hope. He suggested that his men plant regimental gardens to grow vegetables and enjoy the healthful benefits of direct contact with plants and soil: what later days would know as ecotherapy. He had stopped growing tobacco because it sucked nutrients from the land while keeping America dependent on Britain. He criticized farmers who wastefully logged trees. Another George, last name Mason, mailed Washington seeds to experiment with.
While working on his Farewell Address, Washington redesigned Mount Vernon, moving away from a plantation worked by slaves to lots leased by tenants encouraged not to use slave labor. They would also try crop rotation and refrain from planting tobacco. Selling his land in Ohio would free up money to let him carry out his plan.
John Adams too found nature contact to be therapeutic. In keeping with his plain style and manner, he planted a smaller garden and orchard where he could take what he called tranquil walks. “Such Excursions are very necessary to preserve our Health, amidst the suffocating Heats of the City, and the wasting, exhausting Debates of the Congress,” he wrote to his wife. He preferred talking to gardeners to dressing up to attend banquets. He too preferred an irregular design that let Nature grow with abandon. He also enjoyed researching different kinds of composting and crop rotation.
Adams and Jefferson toured English gardens together and brought home ideas. Accompanying them was Philadelphia gardener William Hamilton. He had not supported the Revolution, so they stuck to discussing gardening. Jefferson was particularly interested in combining qualities of beauty with the utility of farming. He considered himself a tinkerer who loved gardening and philosophizing. Describing his home, he wrote to Maria Cosway, “…Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. with what majesty do we there ride above the storms! how sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! and the glorious Sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains, & giving life to all nature!” (1786).
Jefferson toured New England gardens with James Madison, another avid gardener. An introvert more comfortable with books than political conventions, Madison grew animated when talking about growing things. He planted ornamentals, and his forest-framed terraces held fruits and vegetables with flowers mixed in. He was a recognized local expert on plants and seeds. He did some of his writing and reading outdoors. He hired a French landscape designer recommended by James Monroe. Mostly he designed for beauty and peacefulness.
Madison was elected president of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, devoted in part to improve the soil in Virginia. He spoke publicly to planters, landowners, and farmers about how to keep the balance between humanity and the natural world. He spoke about the beauty of the economy of nature. Like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, he called for preserving timber rather than cutting it or removing its bark. (Benjamin Rush linked people falling ill in Philadelphia with air-cleansing woods being cut down.) One day all this would be known as ecology and conservation.
With so many consumers of the fertility of the earth, and so little attention to the means of repairing their ravages, no one can be surprised at the impoverished face of the country; whilst every one ought to be desirous of aiding in the work of reformation.
–James Madison, Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle
Another exchanger of seed, Benjamin Franklin, experimented with crops grown in his garden in Philadelphia. He was especially interested in edible plants that could make America less dependent on foreign food. Franklin’s city crops foreshadowed the movement of locally grown food. He would have admired the Incredible Edible operation in Todmorden. Another practical farmer, John Jay, retired to his farm after serving as the nation’s first Supreme Court Justice and took up horticulture as well. Robert Morris was an avid horticulturalist. Even the urbanite Hamilton took up gardening. Agricultural experimentation and love for the land: common ground when all other agreements failed between politicians locked in conflict.
During a deadlock in the Constitution Convention, members visited Bartram’s fabled garden just outside Philadelphia, strolling while they conversed informally. Smaller groups had dropped by Franklin’s garden near the State House. William Bartram had inherited the garden from his father and was something of a nature mystic; his writings would inspire the English Romantic poets. Echoing Washington, John Bartram had laid out the garden to show how trees and plants from all thirteen states grew harmoniously together. After their “pensive wanderings,” members of the Convention returned to work and passed the Connecticut Compromise, agreeing to divide power and authority between a federal Senate and a national House of Representatives.
The framers understood that the survival of the nation depended on protecting its lands and waters, animals and plants. For them, America was more than an idea: it was a paradise of fertility and abundance that required careful stewardship. Today, it also requires repair and preparation for ecoresiliency as climate chaos accelerates.
Principle #7: Security and Peace.
Everyone deserves to live in peace, free from the threat of war. National security depends on cultivating fair and just relationships abroad as well as internally.
“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” James Madison wrote this in his “Political Observations” (1795). In a letter to John Murray, he also stated, “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war” (1816).
The American colonists landed here with a dark legacy never entirely eradicated: a thirst for conquest. They were displacing and killing Indians and trying to capture what is now Canada even before the Revolutionary War.
The United States has fought twelve major wars, or thirteen by the count of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which includes the Global War on Terror. When undeclared wars and “military actions” are included, the count goes as high as 134. The number is hazier when regime changes (coups) are included: perhaps 81 just in the years 1946-2000. Long gone are the days since President Washington warned about involvement in “foreign entanglements.”
The Fiscal Year 2024 Defense Appropriations Act provided $831.781 billion in total funding: the highest amount by far of any country. In fiscal year 2023, when $130 billion was allocated for research and development, the Department of Defense accounted for $1.8 trillion. But the DOD routinely fails audits, and billions are wasted on overcharges for equipment, cost overruns, schedule delays, and failed programs like the Arapaho helicopter, the ASDS submarine, the JLENS radar blimp, and the littoral combat ship upgrade.
The US Government maintains 750 military bases in 80 countries and colonies around the world, which is more bases than any nation or empire or in history. The number of domestic military bases is between 450 and 500.
WHEREFORE, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows, that whatever FORM thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
– Common Sense
By contrast, Finland, rated the happiest nation on earth year after year by the UN’s World Happiness Report, has a military budget of $6 billion, an increase because of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Finland’s last war was WW II. It does not engage in regime change abroad, spends to keep its safety net strong and its poverty levels low, and maintains a Housing First program to make sure people have somewhere to live. It also has universal healthcare. No major terrorist groups pester Finland, and its democracy is stable over time. It is often ranked the safest country in the world, with low rates of homicides, assaults, and gun violence even though gun ownership levels are comparable to those in the US. Finland maintains two nuclear energy plants but has no nuclear weapons. It keeps its armed forces modest but modernized. It settles conflicts through debate and negotiation.
Benjamin Franklin had an opinion relevant to these facts. “All Wars are Follies,” he wrote to Mary Hewson, “very expensive, and very mischievous ones. When will Mankind be convinced of this, and agree to settle their Differences by Arbitration? Were they to do it, even by the Cast of a Dye, it would be better than by Fighting and destroying each other” (1783).
One reason nations like Finland maintain peace and security more consistently than the US is that their citizens see themselves as participants in the international community rather than as special people apart from everyone else. A sense of international solidarity allows them to realize that, as Thomas Paine wrote, “The remedy of force can never supply the remedy of reason.” Heroic violence is not part of their national character.
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. –Federalist #1
Reimagining America includes taking our peaceful place in the world community, converting unnecessary and wasteful military spending to peaceful purposes like housing, infrastructure repair, healthcare, education, clean energy subsidization, and ecological restoration, evolving to a military posture of defense only (it should really be a Department of Defense, not a department of attack and interference), promoting a culture of collaborative problem-solving and negotiation, and eliminating weapons of mass destruction. It’s time to outgrow our national self-reinforcing circle of paranoia leading to violence.
Principle #8: Redress of Past and Present Injustice.
Because justice is the foundation of democratic government, when injustice occurs, it must be promptly addressed. Past injustices must be acknowledged, and attempts made to adjust whatever imbalances linger.
After the injuries we have done them [the Indians], they cannot love us....
–Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, 1786
Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!
The Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony late in 1620, a year after Portuguese kidnappers brought twenty Angolans to Jamestown for sale to colonists. Way back in 1513, a free Black man named Juan Garrido accompanied Spanish explorers in what is now Florida. Eventually he ended up in California looking for gold. In 1536, Esteban the Moor, a Black Muslim from Morocco, guided the survivors of a Spanish expedition across 15,000 dry and hot miles of Texas on an arduous walk nearly twice the length of Lewis and Clark’s later Indian-guided journey.
In my boyhood education, only the Pilgrims were mentioned, heightening the sense that White Christians like me made all the important moves early on. My later education introduced me to an initially disconcerting but salutary series of humbling introductions into a wider world.
When you grow up in a bubble of racial exceptionalism, learnings that displace your group from the center of everything feel at first like insults. What? Arab alchemists not only theorized the Scientific Method centuries before Francis Bacon, but used it to experiment with? This can’t be! However, always having to be first or best, individually or as a group, reveals an underlying inferiority complex anchored in shame. It also reveals where our sense of identity is overly restrictive.
When scared people cling to exceptionalism by denying the facts of history, they retreat from a great adventure: taking one’s place in the wider human journey. Pilgrims, Lewis, Clark, Bacon, and others did important things, not as firsts perhaps, but as members of the human family to which we—and all firsts—belong.
Discussion of how long American Indians (as many prefer to be called) have been in what is now the US brings up controversy. The current scientific research says 30,000 years; many Indians say, “Forever,” which is true for all practical purposes. When the settlers arrived, they entered a land with many more tribes than the 574 now officially recognized.
We know what happened next: the broken treaties, the massacres, courageous acts of Indian resistance on so many fronts, the relentless push westward...
The Indians being the prior occupants possess the right of the Soil—It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent, or by the right of Conquest in case of a just War—To dispossess them on any other principle would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that destributive justice which is the glory of a nation.
–Henry Knox, 1798
Calls to leave all that in the past ignore its severe and lingering consequences. One in four American Indians lives in poverty today. Tribal lands remain locked up in national parks. Wages are 40% lower, especially for American Indian women, than for Whites (Center for American Progress). Forward movement on these and other fronts comes mainly from Native-led organizations, who also push for accurate labor, economic, and health data collection, healthcare and education access, paid family and medical leave, and child and elder care.
25 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention owned slaves. Some of Washington’s teeth, held in place by a prosthesis, came from slaves paid a small sum to lose theirs. Most delegates and all founders admitted that slavery was wrong; most kept slaves anyway. A few like Franklin and Hamilton joined anti-slavery societies and pushed legislation to abolish slavery. By 1860, Black slave labor could be estimated at a worth of over $4 billion: more than was invested in railroads and manufacturing.
A Black slave named Billy Lee accompanied Washington through the war. Another named Jethro was among the first men to die at Valley Forge. At Yorktown, a Black regiment with Hamilton in command led the decisive American assault. After initial resistance, Washington had agreed to integrate the army.
“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery,” Washington wrote in 1786 to Robert Morris. According to David Humphreys, owning slaves “whose labour in part I employed” was Washington’s lasting regret. “The first thing I would recommend,” said Benjamin Rush in an address, “to put a stop to slavery in this country, is to leave off importing slaves.” “Where slavery exists,” wrote Madison in 1787, “the republican theory becomes still more fallacious.”
But if the slave trade be altogether unjust, as we all agree, is not slavery not equally unjust? What do we mean by Liberty?
–Rev. Samuel Hopkins
The shame that would work its way into White psychology in America was evident from the beginning. An echo of it appears in the following statement:
That men should pray and fight for their own freedom, and yet keep others in slavery, is certainly acting a very inconsistent, as well as unjust and, perhaps, impious part, but the history of mankind is filled with instances of human improprieties.
–John Jay to Rev. Dr. Price, 1785
Even Jay cannot bring himself to bear the magnitude of wrong in slavery without adding a disclaimer that “mankind” too is unjust. “Every man of every color and description has a natural right to freedom,” Jay is quoted as arguing. “To contend for our own liberty,” he tells Richard Lushington in 1786, “and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
Opposing the spread of slavery to the Missouri Territory, “I Shall not pause to consider whether my Opinion will be popular or unpopular with the Slave Holders, or Slave Traders, in the Northern the Middle, the Southern, or the Western, States,” John Adams wrote to William Tudor, Jr. in 1819. “I respect all those who are necessarily subjected to this Evil.—But Negro Slavery is an evil of Colossal Magnitude…” To Robert Evans in 1819: “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.” Unlike Jefferson, Adams did not think slavery would simply die out.
But when Jefferson and others proposed to ban slavery altogether, representatives from Georgia and South Carolina threatened to secede. They seem to have meant it. The latter state had also rejected Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause for the Declaration of Independence and demanded its removal.
As President, Jefferson’s pre-Civil War felicitations, offered at the sixth State of the Union Address, were premature:
I congratulate you, fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the un-offending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe.
Slavery too left legacies of injustice still playing out. The average White family has ten times the wealth as the average Black family, and White college graduates seven times more wealth than Black graduates (Brookings). People of color in the United States have offered tragic accounts about racism so embedded and severe that white supremacists now parade openly on the political stage once again. A social media meme complained: Remember when we all agreed that Hitler was bad?
In 2019, the NAACP posted a statement about the need for reparations, specifically for Black citizens, involving “a national apology, rights to the cannabis industry, financial payment, social service benefits, and land grants to every descendant of an enslaved African American and Black person a descendant of those living in the United States including during American slavery until the Jim Crow era.” Reparations cannot undo past injustice; rather, “reparations are the first step in repairing the devastation inflicted by slavery and racial discrimination. Ultimately when the Black community as a whole is excelling the country excels.” A self-evident truth.
Advocates of reparations argue that the effects of segregation, racism, environmental injustice, redlining, and other discriminatory policies have stolen opportunities for building health and wealth. This dreadful legacy is too much for individual effort alone to overcome (Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity; Insight Center for Community Economic Development).
Reparations are not new in the US. When Washington’s will finally set his slave Billy free, it also gave him an annual allowance.
Efforts at reparation have often been undermined. In 1865, General Sherman ordered that land confiscated from Confederate rebels be given to enslaved African Americans who had worked that land. President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order. After WW II, Congress created an Indian Claims Commission to compensate federally recognized tribes, but after making some payments to trust accounts instead of recipients, the Commission dissolved in a bureaucratic muddle. Another Congressional agreement in 1971 to compensate indigenous Alaskans paid out stock shares. In 2013, North Carolina passed a law to compensate the survivors among 7,600 people sterilized in a eugenics program, but arguments circulated about who was eligible and who not.
Nevertheless, in 2015, 57 mostly African American men from Chicago’s South Side were compensated for being abused and tortured by the police. One result was a Torture Justice Center to offer counseling to victims of police brutality and lessons about police torture in the public school curriculum. Claimants among Japanese Americans unjustly imprisoned during WW II were given an apology by Congress and paid $20,000 each. According to Californian Robert Matsui, “It lifted the specter of disloyalty that hung over us for 42 years because we were incarcerated. We were made whole again as American citizens.” The injustice had been publicly witnessed with an acknowledgment that lost time, land, opportunities, and suffering could never be made up for.
In 2016, thanks to a student-led referendum, Georgetown University agreed to admissions preference for descendants of 272 slaves sold by the school. Students opted for a tuition fee increase to cover costs. The school also apologized for its past role in slavery and renamed two buildings accordingly. California set up a Reparations Task Force to consider reparations for Black citizens. It was set up because reparations bills in Congress have not passed. Illinois, New Jersey (through nonprofits and faith groups), and Michigan are also looking into reparations.
In some cases, making a full financial accounting for past wrongs leads into argument-filled complexities that can seem insoluble. But for those who are either victims themselves or members of a group that was wronged, a public, detailed, sincere, and full apologetic acknowledgment matters. Members of the group that committed the injustices, or descendants of that group, have a choice: either feel personally accused, which is unproductive, or consider the occasion an opportunity for repairing current relationships while making peace with the handed-down demons of shame and guilt.
Principle #9: Freedom from Religious Pressure.
No one’s public or private rights or opportunities should be curtailed due to membership or non-membership in a religious body. Everyone shall enjoy the right to participate in the religion of their choice or none at all.
Were the founders Christians? Nominally, they were; almost everyone was back then. Thomas Paine was definitely not. “It is of the utmost danger to society to make it (religion) a party in political disputes. Mingling religion with politics may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America” (Common Sense). From the Bible, he argued, humanity had learned cruelty, rape, and murder. He also said that one good schoolmaster was more useful than a hundred priests. “Accustom a people to believe that priests or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance” (Worship and Church Bells). He was not an atheist, though. He believed that everyone had access to the divine.
Washington and John Adams were Christian Deists. Paine was a non-Christian Deist, as was Jefferson according to his Autobiography. Ethan Allen was a non-Christian Deist and a kind of early Transcendentalist. Deism was the Enlightenment philosophy that God does not interfere directly in a world better grasped through reason and inquiry than through belief. Deists were critical of dogma and claims of divine revelation and favored religious toleration and social justice.
Jefferson was allergic to established churches. To Ezra Ely he wrote, “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (1819).
Pious Christian founders included Samuel Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, and Patrick Henry. Madison was a Deist and raised Episcopalian, but most of his remarks about religion are critical of it. “Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together” (to Edward Livingston, 1822). “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize, every expanded prospect" (to William Bradford, 1774).
Although a Calvinist, Samuel Adams argued for mutual toleration by “good and candid minds.” In The Rights of the Colonists: “As neither reason requires nor religion permits the contrary, every man living in or out of a state of civil society has a right peaceably and quietly to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience.”
All the founders argued against the intrusion of religion, Christian or otherwise, into government. They did not intend to create a Christian nation. Religion was personal and private and should stay that way.
Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause; and I was not without hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy of the present age would have put an effectual stop to contentions of this kind.
–Washington to Sir Edward Newenham, 1792
Even before work began on a national constitution, state constitutions came with a bill of rights that usually included freedom of religion.
What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.
–James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments
At first glance, Benjamin Rush might seem an exception: he defended the use of the Bible in schools. However, even he supported separating religion and government:
I agree with you likewise in your wishes to keep religion and government independent of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World. “Cease from your political labors your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.
–Letter to Jefferson, 1800
Benjamin Franklin approved the morals of Christianity when consistently upheld by private citizens:
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.
–Letter to Ezra Stiles, 1790
Jefferson, who had left Christianity at age 15 to become a Deist, had a lot to say about religion and Christianity, most of it highly critical. Christian priests had adulterated Plato for “profit, power and preeminence” (letter to John Adams, 1814). “I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another” (letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799). “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read” (letter to Ms. Harrison Smith, 1816). “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government” (letter to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813). “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god” (Notes on the State of Virginia).
The “genius” of Christianity is its refusal of toleration, even to “the notion that schismatics might be ousted of their possessions & destroyed. This notion we have not yet cleared ourselves from” (Notes on Religion).
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
–Jefferson referring in his Autobiography (1821) to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom
Like Jefferson, John Adams had much to say about religion, although he was more apt to say it from within the Christian fold. “Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public? Miracles after miracles have rolled down in torrents” (1813). “Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an atheist for his opinions. Let him have a care of his practices” (to John Quincy Adams, 1816). “Knavish priests,” he wrote to Jefferson, have used the Cross to fill the blackest pages of history (1816).
Instead of missionizing Christianity abroad, it would be better for Christians to purify Christendom from its corruptions (to Jefferson, 1816). “Where do we find a precept in the Gospel requiring Ecclesiastical Synods? Convocations? Councils? Decrees? Creeds? Confessions? Oaths? Subscriptions? And whole cart-loads of other trumpery that we find religion incumbered with in these days?” (Diary entry, 1756).
It is true that Adams and other founders and framers often asked God for guidance and blessing for the nation (Washington asked “Providence” but did not kneel, even in church), but such acts have been misrepresented as favoring religious government.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
–1st Amendment to the US Constitution
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
–Article VI, paragraph 3, US Constitution
Had the founders intended to build the nation on a Christian foundation, the words “God” and “Jesus” would certainly appear in the Constitution. They don’t.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
–Jefferson to Danbury Baptist Association, 1802
In 1796, the United States signed the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified unanimously by the Senate in 1797 and signed into law by President Adams. The intent of the treaty was to stop Barbary pirates and privateers from interfering with American trade. It was written by Joel Barlow, formerly Washington’s chaplain. Article 11 of it reads:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character or enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
According to a 2022 national survey, Republican and Democrat majorities continue to agree that religion should be kept separate from government policies (Pew Research Center).
The problem of intolerance is due neither to religion nor atheism per se, but to attempts to impose one’s views on others. Like colonization of the body, that of the mind is an act of aggression contrary to the humanity all religious founders have advocated and, in many cases, died for.
We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.
–Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments
Or as Jefferson stated firmly in his draft for the Virginia state constitution, “All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution.”
Principle #10: Celebration of Local, National, and World Culture.
A viable and healthy nation remains aware of its relations with and commitments to all of humanity. Citizens and their government benefit by regularly setting aside occasions for celebrating their ties with the greater human family.
It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradation we surmount the force of local prejudice as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world.
– Common Sense
Most of the founders and framers were well-traveled men. They penetrated at will the social bubble of provincialism surrounding the American colonies. They understood the difference between patriotism, which is love of one’s country, and nationalism, which is pseudo-love based on a divisive superiority complex.
I am convinced our own happiness requires that we should continue to mix with the world, and to keep pace with it as it goes; and that every person who retires from free communication with it is severely punished afterwards by the state of mind into which he gets, and which can only be prevented by feeding our sociable principles. I can speak from experience on this subject. From 1793 to 1797 I remained closely at home, saw none but those who came there, and at length became very sensible of the ill effect it had on my own mind, and of its direct and irresistible tendency to render me unfit for society and uneasy when necessarily engaged in it. I felt enough of the effect of withdrawing from the world then to see that it led to an anti-social and misanthropic state of mind, which severely punishes him who gives in to it; and it will be a lesson I never shall forget as to myself.
–Jefferson to Maria Jefferson Eppes, 1809
How much more narrowly self-centered our governance is now. Since 1930, the US Senate has failed to ratify or has withdrawn from at least 46 international treaties, including agreements to prevent forced labor, protect collective bargaining, block human trafficking, protect refugees, prevent discrimination in education, stop child marriage, limit anti-ballistic missiles, uphold human rights, stop discrimination against women, strengthen occupational health regulations, protect rapidly diminishing biological diversity, ban nuclear testing, mitigate climate chaos, ban land mines, strengthen the convention against torture, protect people from being disappeared, protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities, and limit cluster munitions. An individual who acted like this would be looked upon as dangerously and recklessly antisocial.
In many ways, we are like chronically slow drivers in the fast lane, or drivers who don’t know how to merge when getting on a freeway, or who cut in front of others. The realization is simple but important: We aren’t the only drivers on the road. A minimum standard for leadership in the US should be basic awareness of the needs of others, here and abroad, as well as sincere respect for and knowledge of the mores and traditions of other cultures and nations.
In some ways, our collective awareness of other traditions has increased. Growing up in Southern California, for example, I never saw Diwali, Chinese New Year, the Day of the Dead, Gay Pride, or Juneteenth celebrated; now they are routinely. Even when heavily commercialized, it’s a step. Land acknowledgements are a step too, although I don’t make them because the Native Californians on whose ancestral lands I live haven’t authorized me to and can speak for themselves.
Celebrating and welcoming difference involves facing and overcoming fear of the Other, of those strangers over there with different languages and traditions. Too often, paranoia comes with being a citizen of a nation with a long history of aggression. We fear others will take from us what our ancestors took from theirs, or that we will be paid back for what we have allowed our government to inflict around the world. Colonists feared without a shred of evidence that King George sought to enslave them—just as they had enslaved others.
One reason for being honest about our American legacy is to escape being inwardly chained by it; instead, we foment liberty of the interior. While we’re at it, what if we extended the scope of that liberty by not shaming each other for the politicians we vote for, the gods we worship or don’t, our levels of education, smokers vs. non-, the foods we eat, the cars we drive, whether or not we own arms or hunt, whether or not we get the pronouns right, the materials of the clothes we wear, the straws we drink from, or how often we fly? Shaming others is self-loathing turned outward.
Appreciating unfamiliar cultural groups counters fear and paranoia. After a period of initial strangeness, we come to appreciate and learn from the differences. They teach us about ourselves, too, including the treasures we might have neglected from our own cultural history. Learning something of how non-Western cultures “read” the natural world for its presences and images increased my appreciation for and helped me build on the Book of Nature tradition embedded in the Christianity I grew up with.
The barrier to all this is, of course, fear. When a group is used to being on top, the habit of domination works so thoroughly into them that discovering themselves to be a node in a great web of relations can be frightening. To take an obvious example: The White segment of the national population is around 60% and decreasing. In states like California and Texas, Whites are now a numerical minority, which will characterize the US as a whole around 2045. Across the country, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Hispanics are the fastest-growing populations. No one is driving this. It’s just happening.
Some Whites fear this deeply, but only some. According to another national Pew Research survey, 61% of Americans have no strong feelings about the White population decreasing relative to other populations. Nearly identical Democrat and Republican majorities say the shift is neither good nor bad. Reminder: race is a historically recent category invented by groups of colonizing elites eager to exploit other people. It has no basis in genetics or biology. It exists only because of inequity.
I see this population shift as an opportunity to expand our identity beyond our own cultural group to embrace humanity as a whole. In many ways, including inwardly, we are a very young nation. It’s high time we came of age as a people whose identity transcends color. That transition will deserve hearty celebration and reaffirm our founding ideals.
God grant, that not only the Love of Liberty, but a thorough Knowledge of the Rights of Man, may pervade all the Nations of the Earth, so that a Philosopher may set his Foot anywhere on its Surface, and say, ‘This is my Country.’
–Ben Franklin to David Hartley, 1789
Maturing the Revolution
This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.
–John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 1818
By 1796, Washington was worn out. He had had enough of being President. It was time to retire. He did not know it, but he had only two years left to live, having done more than anyone could have expected of him to help birth a new republic, a nation dreamed into being in contention, blood, and hope.
In his Farewell Address, he emphasized the importance of holding together to keep the dream alive:
It is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion, that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
Two centuries of war and disaster, betrayal and disillusionment, waited up ahead, but through it all, the Union held. Written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and in operation since 1789, the United States Constitution is the world’s longest surviving written charter of government.
“Posterity!” John Adams wrote to Abigail in 1777. “You will never know, how much it cost the present generation, to preserve your Freedom! — I hope you will make a good use of it.”
Today, the nation is divided as never before. Talk of another civil war drifts through cyberspace while slanted news and social media push to widen the crack in the Liberty Bell of the national soul. The electoral process itself is under attack. Crazy conspiracy theories receive airtime in Congress, where civility has all but vanished.
Consider two traditional political stances:
Conservatives (the modern Antifederalists) criticize lack of transparency in big government. They also criticize elitism. They warn against government overreach, underline the need for individual responsibility and accountability, and value individual liberties, patriotism (simply trashing the country’s heritage gets us nowhere), American tradition, strong national defense, and the preservation of property rights. Conservatives also insist on the importance of morality in public and private affairs.
Liberals (the modern Federalists) promote an ethic of care, recognizing that individuality is always embedded in relationships. Differences of sex, gender, ethnicity, ability, religion, and age require support and respect, especially where the rights of the traditionally oppressed are concerned. Extreme discrepancies in wealth must be evened out to give everyone a fair chance to flourish. Military spending should be reasonable and geared to promote peace. Care of Earth is paramount; free enterprise would be meaningless on an unlivable planet.
These differences used to reflect variances of background, economic status, opportunity, and privilege. Probably temperament too: some research suggests that conservatives tend to favor political positions that soothe their anxiety about potential threats, whereas liberals favor whatever addresses their concerns for others. The first emphasize unity, the second diversity. These seem like halves of a whole, don't they? Both emphasize protection from harm, for example: conservatives look out for themselves and their kin, liberals for other people.
But today, these sides have been polarized far beyond any traditional recognition. Even setting news bias aside, online platforms are packed with the rejection, projection, and name-calling of hating on each other. Even the words "liberal" and "conservative" have become negative terms. (It is argued that the GOP is tearing down the electoral system while standing behind an ex-president who is a convicted felon, an insurrectionist, and a target of multiple other investigations, whereas the left is not. That is true; but had the Democratic Party been consistently inclusive, would we be in this catastrophe? They won't even embrace their own change agents. Fascism does not grow in a vacuum.)
Both sides see the hostility, intolerance, selfishness, and scheming infecting the republic but blame it on each other. A small example: Back when the Bush Administration was lying to the public about weapons of mass destruction in oil-rich Iraq (I counseled military veterans who knew why they went over there), I found myself placed on an email distribution with a dozen liberal colleagues—mostly counselors and healers—asking for prayers to help President Bush evolve a kindlier posture. When I asked why they weren’t praying to empower his political opponents, I was dropped from the list. Had they been conservatives of the angry sort, they would have flung loud vitriol instead of using the passive aggression of silent cancellation. Developmentally, the loud response corresponds to a childhood level of emotional maturity, and the silence to an adolescent level. Neither is particularly adult.
And so the bell remains cracked. What is to be done?
Centrist papering over won't fix it. Combining extreme positions does not yield a realistic one. Also, at bottom, nonpolarized liberalism and conservatism represent two valuable impulses in human nature: the urge to freely (liber) experiment, and the need to protect (conserve) what exists. Smashing them together would diminish both. That would also damage the temperament which naturally favors one or the other.
Perhaps a better question would be: What might conscious or mature liberalism and conservatism be like?
America faces a crisis of maturity. The issue is not who will win, conservative or liberal, but how we can grow up as quickly as possible into fully responsible human stature.
The only way I know to mature emotionally is to spend time learning from people who are already there. This might have been the unspoken impulse behind John Adams visiting the Haudenosaunee for lessons in how to conduct a large-scale federal democracy geared for mutual defense and foreign relations. What he learned went into a handbook printed for the Constitution Convention. Jefferson’s father visited the Cherokee in Williamsburg; officials in Philadelphia talked to the Delawares. What was formerly known as the Iroquois Confederacy had been governing successfully for several centuries. Why not consult the elders?
Meanwhile, we can speculate about some common ground between conscious/mature conservatism and liberalism. They would be characterized by:
Open-mindedness to contrary political positions. A conscious conservative or liberal would be able to fairly describe why their opposite number thinks and feels the way they do without smearing or stereotyping them. A person thus described might not feel agreed with, but they would feel understood and heard.
An attitude of basic respect for everyone. Chloe Valdary offers a model called the Theory of Enchantment that would be useful here: 1. Treat people like human beings, not political abstractions. 2. Criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down or destroy. 3. Try to root everything you do in love and compassion.
Freedom from group-glorifying fantasies. For most Americans, especially people of color, the wonderful 1920s never existed, nor has the republic ever been free of pathological levels of splitting. That is the urgent significance of our historic opportunity today. Nor will we evolve solely by sipping herbal teas, breathing deeply, or setting positive intentions.
A capacity for containing and managing emotions instead of acting them out against other people. The word “civility” has been misused, but its basic definition stands: courtesy and regard shown to others. (From civilis, “relating to citizens.”) Name-calling, labeling to stereotype, attacking instead of debating or listening, and succumbing to rages are incompatible with being fully adult.
A capacity for staying calm and reasonable in difficult conversations until things get resolved. Some among the founders and framers modeled that for us. In the Continental Congress, weeks without progress went by, but the members who kept showing up to talk and listen created the founding charter for our nation.
Liberation from irrational fears. Fear divides: “Immigrants steal US jobs and are bad for the economy.” No. According to the Bush Administration Department of Labor, this is a fallacy; there is no fixed number of US jobs. In fact, immigrants are often job creators. They found more companies than native-born citizens do, and citizens benefit. They pay billions in taxes and receive much less welfare than the native-born do. Many immigrants fill jobs that most citizens don’t want. “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions,” wrote Washington in 1783.
Liberation from the fallacy that only the powerful decide how things go. “The course of history,” observes John Meacham, “is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves.”
Calm determination in the face of adversity. Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene summed it up: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.” Failure is how we learn to do better next time. When Washington’s letters to Congress repeatedly failed to convince state representatives to pay their fair share of taxes to keep the Continental Army alive, he took his case elsewhere and persisted until his men received some of the food, uniforms, and ammunition they needed.
Loving this country, shadows and all, instead of either idolizing or despising it. The idolizer secretly fears succumbing to an underlying disenchantment barely held at bay. The cynic fears getting hopes up, risking reinjury. Liberation from both mindsets involves the maturity to see both sides of things, to live with ambiguity, like recognizing both light and dark in the same person, as MLK did in the founders, whom he considered both great and flawed.
What King called recapturing the revolutionary spirit depends on remembering the nature of our American experiment: managed disagreement that clears common ground. To saddle up and argue until we get it right is in our national DNA, but we must grow up emotionally to ride in that rodeo. “We have fought side by side to make America free,” Hamilton wrote to John Laurens, “let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.”
…The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do…one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating…
–James Baldwin, 1965
The rewards for working things out between us are immense. Imagine a flourishing nation of citizens loyal to each other: the ideal made real. A happy and healthy nation where everyone is safe, fed, and looked after. A nation liberated from racism, sexism, and every other ism that diminishes and divides. An America of clean skies and clear rivers, of beautiful buildings and safe neighborhoods, of abundant energy and meaningful work. A renewed America where everyone eats and sleeps, no one locks their doors, leaders keep their commitments, and parents raise their children instead of losing them to crime or combat. The real America the Beautiful.
It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.
–Susan B. Anthony, 1872
Such an America would complete the Revolution, heal our Bell, and relight Liberty’s beacon. Its glow would signal: Welcome to a land of prosperous and inclusive self-government! Look at our Declaration of Interdependence, an evolution of dreams, rights, and pluralities evident since the nation’s founding. Instead of colonizing a continent divisively, we are responsibly reinhabiting it, this time together. Instead of interfering with other nations, we finally grew up enough to repair and mature our own.
If a truly collaborative and democratic global civilization awaits humanity, a system of fairness and plenty not imposed from above but grown collaboratively from below, a world culture for a mature species aware of its obligations, what better model than a society showing how this can be accomplished? Not by coercion, the road of empire, but by example: the best way to inspire lasting change. Hamilton talked about thinking continentally. What about thinking planetarily?
We have now happily concluded the great work of independence, but much remains to be done to reach the fruits of it. Our prospects are not flattering. Every day proves the inefficacy of the present confederation, yet the common danger being removed, we are receding instead of advancing in a disposition to amend its defects…It is to be hoped that when prejudice and folly have run themselves out of breath we may return to reason and correct our errors.
–Hamilton to John Jay, 1783
We can make whole the Liberty Bell. Let freedom ring.
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Read also about enchantivism: fighting sorcery (polarizing lies and propaganda) with enchantment and hatred with hope.