With each Presidential election cycle, it seems like the United States is becoming more divided. The old adage of “two Americas” always seems to ring true as we squabble from our opposite poles. Along with the inevitable squabbles comes the inevitable platitudes and slogans from the candidates, and this time around it is much of the same. Much like Obama’s “Hope and Change” mantra, we now have Trump’s “Make America Great Again” to echo across the hills and plains. Are we electing a president, or are we shopping for breakfast cereals?
Oddly enough, as we seemingly grow more distant from our fellow Americans, the slogans are converging into the same hollow meaninglessness: things are crap now and need to change.
As I’ve touched on before, discussions of change inherently have two pieces: what was it before, and what is it becoming? The United States finds itself in that odd place where its past is far enough away to become storybook tradition, but unlike other countries around the globe, there isn’t enough ingrained within the American psyche to provide some kind of unified experience as a foundation. This is a shame, because the United States truly holds a unique foundation that is slowly being forgotten.
A.) A TRUE REVOLUTION
When one thinks of revolution, it usually carries a certain political connotation because of the direction revolution has taken the globe in recent history. Marxist revolutions in China and Russia usually come to mind as historical reference points, particularly because of their temporal proximity and their philosophical roots. Revolutions can often take the form of fighting for political independence as well, which can be for any number of reasons, whether it is political, ethnic, or otherwise.
Even though it is called the Revolutionary War, the birth of the United States is rarely treated as a revolution anymore. We celebrate Independence Day every Fourth of July, we have a historical concept of the colonies fighting for independence from the British, and we have vague memories of mottos like “taxation without representation.” It is, however, a great disservice to only remember the Revolutionary War in terms of politics and independence. The truth is that the Revolutionary War was just as much a true philosophical revolution as its more modern counterparts, and its implications were the first of their kind.
Central to this philosophical revolution is, in a nutshell, the concept of the origination of rights. As basic as that concept may seem, it is one that people shed blood over and one that our Founding Fathers argued over centuries ago. And, strangely enough, it seems that we are reigniting that argument as we speak.
B.) A CHANGING OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL GUARD
Essentially, the “old world” thinking of rights had them flowing directly from the monarchy, and that can be traced to concepts like the divine right of kings (when looking at England and France in particular). Rights and law were declared from the throne, by the will of God, and was something bestowed upon the masses. Kings could not be questioned because of this divine authority. The concept of centralized power certainly extends beyond that, but it usually shares the same top down approach.
The founding of the United States placed this whole way of thinking on its head. Starting with the Declaration of Independence, rights were something immutably granted to the masses directly by Natural Law, not through a king or government or other organization of mankind. This is enshrined in the language of the document:
“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.”
This, in fact, was a direct repudiation of the ideology that all men derive their rights from their king or government, but rather received them directly from God.
Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence lists the following as a self-evident truth:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
All rights originate in the individual and flow upward, and they do not originate from a king and flow downward. The government does not exist by nature and bestow rights upon the people, but rather it exists as a creation of man to protect the rights inherent in the people. This very concept was later codified in the Constitution, where the main thrust of the document really can be summed up as “We the people allow the government to do x, y, and z on our behalf because we freely give it the authority to do so, not because the government has the inherent power to do so.”
C.) THE BILL OF RIGHTS
During the creation of the Constitution, two distinct parties emerged: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Generally speaking, the Federalists supported the Constitution as written, advocating for a stronger national government to handle national affairs. On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists feared a strong national government and opposed the Constitution, seeing it as a threat to the states and, therefore, the individual.
When discussing the Constitution, inevitably one thinks about the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was not, however, included in the original Constitution and was later added as amendments. When the Constitution was being written, there was actually a lot of argument about incorporating a Bill of Rights. The reason for the debate wasn’t necessarily because any of the ideas presented were opposed, but more because of how the idea of a national government was viewed. One side (the Federalists) felt it was assumed that the rights mentioned were retained, as were all rights, by the people unless they expressly consented otherwise. The other side (the anti-Federalists) was afraid that a strong national government was a threat to individual rights, so rights therefore need to be more expressly stated.
The Federalists argument won the day in the end and a Bill of Rights was not originally incorporated. It was assumed that rights were retained by the people if not explicitly granted to government through the Constitution. Essentially, if the people say the government can only go straight, they don’t also have to say that the government can’t turn left or right. The issue continued, however, and shortly after a Bill of Rights was added via a series of amendments that James Madison famously noted as being “useful, not essential.” The compromise of adding them as amendments kept the Constitution in place and saved the new country from reopening the debate about its foundation.
The Bill of Rights was contentious because both arguments had merit. The reason for not including it centered on the fear that, if government is the source of defining or granting rights, then government ultimately can take them away or change them. Your rights are, therefore, nothing more than what the government wills under the control of their pen. Alexander Hamilton believed that the Constitution was inherently a Bill of Rights, arguing against a specific Bill of Rights by stating:
“Bills of rights are in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was “Magna Charta,” obtained by the Barons, swords in hand, from King John.”
On the other hand, could there really be harm in protecting as much as possible? Thomas Jefferson believed a Bill of Rights was better than nothing, stating:
“Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.”
No matter what side of the argument you look at, it is impossible to deny a common thread shared by both: the fear of government infringing the rights of the people. The idea of universal rights, or unalienable rights, can only exist if the source of those rights are above the control of man, and that philosophical idea from the revolution permeated the founding of the United States. You can infer divinity in the discussion of unalienable rights if you’d like, but in the very least they can only be unalienable if they are untouchable by the virtue of being granted by an authority higher than ourselves. The importance of the rights of the individual, endowed by their Creator, and the protection of them from tyranny define the very foundation of America. This American philosophy was perfectly summarized by Jefferson:
“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 right of an individual.”
Government should truly be limited to the intersection of our wills, and we should retain everything else.
So, with all of that on the table, how can we apply that to some of our modern debates? It is vitally important to remember our philisophical history as we delve into recent topics, and there are a few poignant examples.
D.) APPLYING AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY TO DEBATES ON RIGHTS
Unbeknownst to many, we are having some of the same debates on rights to this day. One presidential candidate in particular, Bernie Sanders, has made rights a central theme of his campaign, particularly when it comes to things like healthcare and housing. In a recent speech about his political philosophy, Sanders spoke candidly about his beliefs:
“In that remarkable speech this is what Roosevelt said, and I quote: ‘We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.’ In other words, real freedom must include economic security. That was Roosevelt’s vision 70 years ago. It is my vision today. It is a vision that we have not yet achieved. It is time we did…The right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies. The right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care. What Roosevelt was stating in 1944, what Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in similar terms 20 years later and what I believe today, is that true freedom does not occur without economic security.”
His statements resonate with many as we begin the election year, and he is pushing for much of his list as legal rights. But, how does it compare with the American philosophical idea of rights?
The issue with Bernie Sanders’s idea of rights is twofold: 1.) they are the very thing that the Federalists feared, which is the notion that the government legally enshrines rights much like a king grants them to his people from the throne, and 2.) the right to the service provided by another human being is something that should give us pause no matter the moral good we are trying to achieve. Thomas Jefferson explained the inherent problem in such declarations of positive rights:
“It is a principle that the right to a thing gives a right to the means without which it could not be used, that is to say, that the means follow their end.”
Healthcare, housing, college education, etc. are all ends, but it is unspoken that you must therefore have a right to the means as well, and those means are provided by others. The right to housing means you have the right to have someone build you a house. The right to education means you have the right to have someone teach you. The right to healthcare means you have the right to have a doctor treat you. You are going beyond just yourself with all of those and, by the Jeffersonian definition of liberty, you are crossing the limit of your rights that are drawn around you by the rights of others.
Anyone can sympathize with wanting our fellow man to be secure, but is returning to the idea that rights flow from the government, and are therefore things given to the people from the government, the proper route? Is this a return to America’s philosophical roots, or is this a fundamental change to them? Does true freedom depend on economic security given to us by government, or is true freedom our base state and economic insecurity exists because of roadblocks that possibly exist due to government? Whatever the answer, the base question is as old as the Revolutionary War.
E.) APPLYING AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY TO DEBATES ON GUNS
Gun violence has been a hot topic recently, with widely reported stories of horrible violence occurring at what seems like a fantastic rate. Statistics are fired like bullets from the aforementioned guns, and there are passionate supporters on both sides of the argument. America’s “Gun Culture” is often referenced, but what is often lost in translation for both sides of the argument is the philosophical underpinnings to gun ownership that not only naturally flow from a discussion of rights, but are also protected in each of our founding documents.
Earlier, two self-evident truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence were referenced: the idea of unalienable rights and that government is instituted by man to secure them. There is, however, a third self-evident truth that naturally follows the first two in the Declaration of Independence:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
If a government no longer secures the right of the people, and becomes destructive in regards to its role to do so, then the people can change it or get rid of it. It is powerful and frightening language, particularly because “abolishing” in the historical context involved a war, but it is there for a reason. Ultimately, if our goal as civilized society is to protect the liberty of all, we have to be able to defend it, particularly from an institution that has become derelict in its duty to secure liberty.
So, hypothetically speaking, how can the people protect themselves from tyranny if they have no power to do so? This was the reason for the Second Amendment and the ability to abolish government when it becomes tyranny. Gun ownership is not about hunting or protecting oneself from criminals. It is about a collective necessary evil to protect our liberty and that of our fellow man from the very forces that led to the Revolutionary War in the first place: a government that infringes the unalienable rights of the people. A disarmed populace can never protect itself from an armed tyrant.
This should be kept in mind when discussing guns in America. Of course there will still be debate if the philosophy is outdated, but it is only outdated until there is a boot on your neck. Fortunately, the United States has not suffered the tyranny that Europe has faced, most notably in the 20th century. In fact, the United States government has been in existence for longer than many of the governments of modern Europe. Quite possibly, the reason may be because of a self-evident truth.
F.) APPLYING AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY TO DEBATES ON ABORTION
Even abortion can be framed within this same argument about American philosophy and rights. Throughout, the very base starts with the unalienable rights of the individual and, ultimately, protecting them. We focus a lot on trying to define when life begins, but inherent in a new life is also the vesting of those unalienable rights we are endowed with by our Creator. On both sides of the coin, there is a common ground in focusing on rights and protecting them.
So, do you believe in universal human rights? Are they important to you? Then, regardless of your views on abortion, should we all be striving to protect those human rights? If the answer is yes, then how can we possibly do so without being able to define when a person gains those rights? Perhaps we need to stop thinking about ourselves and our own rights and start thinking about the possibility that we may have, over and over, violated the unalienable rights of others. Simply put, if you are not comfortable defining the exact moment when a person gains their human rights, then it is negligent to leave it to chance and it is tyrannical to legislatively allow it to be left to chance.
We should all endeavor to protect the rights of all, particularly those of that are the most vulnerable. As Americans, protecting those rights should be our top priority.
G.) AMERICA THE UNIQUE
American philosophy was revolutionary, but that isn’t the only reason that America is unique. Truly, what makes America stand out is that the country IS its philosophy. Ultimately, there is no true American culture or people. We are a melting pot, but the thing that binds us together is the mold we are poured into. Anyone, anywhere can be as American as a person born and raised in the United States if they agree with the philosophy that this country was founded upon and desire to be a part of the experience. On the other hand, an American cannot turn himself into a Russian, with shared cultural experiences and centuries of historical legacies, no matter how hard they try.
That is the incredible success that is the United States: creating a nation state of individuals, without the bonds of a shared cultural experience, and threading it together entirely based upon a philosophy of liberty and freedom. It is why Americans are so passionate about their world view, because it truly defines who we are as a people more than family trees and shared histories. The fact that this country is divided, though, shows that we are getting further and further away from a shared understanding of the American philosophy. Instead of arguing about where we are going, we should be discussing who we are in the first place.