Our Great Country

We hear a good deal of late about making our country “great” again. But we hear very little about what that might entail. Just what is “greatness” when it comes to nations, anyway? If Honoré de Balzac is to be believed, it is the principles, the things the people of that nation hold dear, that makes nations great. We might also call them “virtues,” to use a much neglected word. And if we are to make America great again I would assume that this means determining what the principles, or virtues, were that were prevalent at the founding of this country and attempting to restore them to life. According to American historian Clinton Rossiter in his book Seedtime of The Republic those principles prevalent at the founding of this nation were such things as industry, frugality, humility, piety, charity, honesty, love of liberty, self-reliance, courage, and community spirit — what Rossiter called “that special American blend.”

Henry Steele Commager, another American historian, was asked when this country celebrated its bicentennial if he could put his finger on the one thing that differentiated the country in 1996 from the country in 1776 and he said it was the deeply felt concern of the citizens in 1776 with the future, with future generations. In 1996 we were preoccupied with today. I will develop this theme in a bit, but at this point I would like to quote from a letter written in 1775 by the Rev. William Smith that provides broader perspective on the mind-set of so many of his countrymen in that era:

“Look back, therefore, with reverence look back to the times of ancient virtue and renown. Look back to the mighty purposes which your fathers had in view when they traversed a mighty ocean and planted this land. Recall to your minds their labors, their toils, their perseverance, and let their divine spirit animate you in all your actions.

“Look forward to a distant posterity. . . Think that on you may depend whether this great country, in ages hence, shall be filled and adorned with a virtuous and enlightened people; enjoying liberty and all its concomitant blessings . . . or covered with a race of men more contemptible than the savages that roam the wilderness.”

Now, putting aside his use of the politically incorrect term “savages,” and ignoring, if we can, the attempts that followed to eradicate native people from this continent, we might learn something about what it was that made this country great at the time it was experiencing the growing pains that accompany the founding of a great nation. We can do no better than to reflect on the list that Rossiter provided us with, the “special American blend.”

And what, we might ask, to follow-up on the hints that Commager gave us more than thirty years ago, would characterize America in our day? I would suggest that the qualities that define us today — I hesitate to call them “principles” or much less “virtues” —  are such things as a predominant materialism, concern for physical comfort, competitiveness, desire for success (measured in dollars), conformity, physical activity, efficiency, mastery of the world around us, pragmatism, and a fixation on “progress” and profits. And to make the point with emphasis, two years ago those electors who elect politicians determined that the man who embodied those qualities was to be elected to the highest office in the land, a man who embodied those qualities that characterize themselves.

In a word, if we are to make this country great again, we chose the wrong leader. But it will take more than the right leader to turn the tide that is sweeping this country today and return us to a time when things were as they appeared and people looked beyond themselves — a time when “civic virtue” was something all (or most) embraced wholeheartedly as they looked to the future.

 

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Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.