It is sweltering hot in Philadelphia in late June 1776. That’s why he rented a second-floor apartment with five windows, giving him cross ventilation. He wanted the breeze to keep him cool; he had a lot of writing to do. There was no air conditioning.
He wrote at night, after long hours spent with the special committee of five whose membership included such notables as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. His committee asked him to write the first draft of what was to become one of history’s most meaningful documents. They knew him, Thomas Jefferson, to be a careful thinker, a scholar who carefully researched and reflected deeply on his subjects.
“… 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…”
We Americans have been uncommonly lucky. Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers who shaped our country were not simply gun-slinging revolutionaries; they were men anchored in worldly philosophies. The Age of Enlightenment was their “Weltanschauung” – their worldview, their political “ground of being.”
Their thoughts were not short-term, concerned only about the now – the “what’s in it for me today?” The Founders understood the awesome responsibility for future generations they had assumed. Their sense of history and purpose underlies their heroic conduct.
John Locke’s writings in his Second Treatise on Government were the most influential works for Jefferson. Jefferson considered Locke, along with Bacon and Newton, as the three most influential men in history.
It was Locke who wrote in 1690 that all men have natural rights to life and liberty; that in the state of nature men’s rationality led them to behave socially; that the self-interest of some men leads them to violate the natural rights of others; and that is why men consent to government.
After his Presidency, in a letter to James Madison, Jefferson proposed that Locke’s work, along with the Federalist Papers, be mandatory readings in Virginia’s law school.
But times change. Our study of the past and its meaning for today has become shallow or nonexistent. Not only in our law schools but also in all of our schools.
Sixty years ago, sociologist David Riesman wrote in his Lonely Crowd that from those days of the Age of Enlightenment, our American society gradually changed from a people who were “inner-directed” to a people who become “other-directed.” Relationships in an other-directed society tend to be shallow, mass media driven. What we think and have, what advertisers say we should be, wear, and do from childhood onward becomes the source of judgment and measure of value.
Thus, when challenges come, there is no ground of being deeply imbedded – there is no internal guidance system providing a source of judgment to measure proper actions or reactions. Short-term behavior – selfish and fickle – become the norm. Without internal grounding, people become narcissistic, shifting blame to others, grabbing what they can at the expense of anyone in their way.
Ironically, James Madison considered those issues in his Federalist paper #10. His concern was about “factions” – citizens actuated by passion or interest adverse to the rights of others or of the community. He concludes that the democracy in itself cannot control factions, for the “overbearing” (tyranny) of the majority prevails. Although he could not foresee the concentration of today’s wealth and its distorting political influence, he recognized that the unequal distribution of property was the cause of the greatest factions.
Madison felt that factions could not be eliminated without destroying liberty. Factions are within the nature of man; thus, neither moral nor religious motives control – and “enlightened” statesmen will not always be at the helm.
Since the causes of factions can’t be removed, the effects of factions must be controlled by the structure of government and by representative government. Elected representatives provide a “public voice.” But Madison recognized that representatives can “betray” or corrupt their public trust. Thus, the “structure” of Republican government, with three independent but overlapping branches provided balance. Factions within a state may “kindle a flame,” he wrote, but balance comes from factions in other states and by the independence of the overlapping branches.
However, sound structure and meaningful representation work best when there is a knowledgeable and participative citizenry.
Unfortunately, since the days of Madison’s Federalist writing and the later Riesman thesis, our politics and our approach to education have done nothing to sharpen our sense of history. When it comes to fundamental principles about governing ourselves we are illiterate.
An American Bar Association study, Flunking Civics, gives South Carolina‘s schools an “A“ but flunks most of the rest of our schools. Adults? In the ABA survey, less than 50% of adults could identify our three branches of government (Madison’s idea of sound structure). When the survey digs deeper it gets worse. ABA President Stephen Zack sums it up:
“This lack of knowledge is unacceptable, especially because itʼs a solvable problem. Currently, fewer than half of all states test students on their knowledge of civics or government. Civics needs to be counted as another basic, like reading and mathematics.”
This illiteracy, and the resulting lack of internal guidance, leaves us vulnerable, without a ground of being for the political decisions that shape our lives. Vulnerability allows twisted politicians to warp our Constitution and Bill of Rights without serious challenge. Time Magazine calls today’s politicians the “Abstract Professors,” creating their own version of history, out of touch with the reality of America‘s foundation.
We hear politicians and lawyers preach that judges must limit their construction of the Constitution to its “original meaning.”
If meanings were clear why did Adams and Jefferson break up their friendship?
Did the Founders foresee single-shot, front-loaded muskets or automatic sub-machineguns when they considered the “right to bear arms?”
And what did they think about the internet? Or Monsanto’s seed patents? Or DNA? Or Television? Or Wall Street? Or bundled mortgages? Or atomic bombs? Or a global economy? Or women’s rights? Or abortion? Or the idea that corporations are “individuals” with rights of political free speech? Or “creationism”? Or global warming? Or rocketing to the moon? Or that almost half of the children being born in our country today are from “minorities”?
When it comes to what the Founders would say about these sorts of things we simply don’t know, nor could they have known.
Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, hold up as Documents For the Ages because they left most of our necessary decisions to the future, to the lessons of experience. Experience defines the “end of the story” for us, interstitially, one step at a time.
That is why I wrote in 1991, in Crash Landing – Surviving a Business Crisis:
“The end of the story, to survive over time, must be continually redefined, like the Constitution of the United States, which serves today’s needs not because it is rigidly bound to its ‘original meaning,’ as some legal scholars suggest, but because it is a living document, continually renewed by the insights of each succeeding generation. Historical roots provide the anchor, but Constitutional interpretation grows out of the experience of each new generation, a step at a time.”
Today, we are torn by political “factions” every bit as divisive as James Madison imagined. Today, we are torn by a tyranny of elected representatives who act because they can, not because they should. Today, we are torn by representatives who have lost sight that they were elected to “represent” all Americans. Today, we find too many of our children and ourselves hopelessly illiterate about the philosophy, context, and message of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Their meaning isn’t crafted by hip-shooting, factional political commentary from either the far right or the far left. The Documents for the Ages can provide us with “inner-direction” we need, but to thrive under that direction, we must first grasp their context – their history and philosophy.
Yet, today we find the World Wide Web, initially thought to “champion” democratic communication, results in factional communication, a result of thousands of choices and our penchant for selecting only those web, or news, sources that support our existing beliefs. The result is an increasingly myopic focus that provides comfort, but not knowledge, exasperated by teaching that focuses on regurgitated facts and not on how we should learn to question and think. Simply put, we don’t Google like a skeptic; we rarely seek out challenges to our beliefs; we seek support, proof about how right we are.
We may call ourselves moderate, open to alternatives, but are we? Will Rogers’ old comment, “Everyone likes progress, no one likes change” is still too true.
Our failure to widen our vision and challenge our beliefs, and our continued narrow focus on education, political and religious philosophies that make us feel right because what we find makes us feel comfortable because what we find support our beliefs can lead to the collapse of our civilization. That would be a shame. Worth examining is Jared Diamond‘s Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Yes, collapse of the great civilizations for the most part has been a matter of choices. Wrong choices. We are not immune. And today’s polarization is neither rational nor helpful nor will it be ultimately successful.
Today, 238 years after our Declaration of Independence first inspired Americans, it is time for us to get a “Locke” on what the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights mean for our time. Make that your personal Declaration of Independence. Then, speak out and act, clothed with confident, meaningful carefully thought-out understanding.