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. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.---Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1
When Alexander Hamilton wrote those words, the citizens of a fledgling republic faced great challenges: significant debts, the aftermath of a great war, internal divisions, and a seemingly crippled government. Yet the Founders chose engagement rather than alienation and laid the foundations for a great civilization.
It would have been easier for them, perhaps, to have turned on each other. Rather than doing the hard work of drafting the Constitution, they might have rested content with blaming internal political adversaries for all political problems. Instead of negotiation and compromise, they might have drunk deep of vitriol. And, even as the ship of state sunk, a few lucky partisans could have rejoiced at having the last swallow of air.
But they didn’t do so. The Founders chose toil and struggle and deliberation over the cheap narcotic of blame. Wrath over taxation may have started the Revolution, but reason, temperance, and conciliation won the republic. The Founders did not regard government as the enemy; they instead sought to recast government to fulfill a broader vision for civilization.
The legacy of their achievements has come down to us, distilled into the annual festival of the Fourth of July. Why do we celebrate this Fourth? Is it merely a time to rest upon our laurels? To clap ourselves on the back once a year with the comforting pablum that ours is the greatest nation in the history of the world? If so, it is a day of mere self-indulgence. The Founders of this nation did not spend all their time proclaiming the greatness of their land. They did great things to make this a great republic.
In part, we celebrate the Fourth to commemorate the work of our predecessors. There were many sacrifices, failures, and triumphs. We, of course, honor those who have given through military service, and we also remember the labors of great statesmen---such as the Founders, Clay, Webster, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and others. We think of those who worked to change the course of this nation’s politics, such as Douglass and Anthony and King, as well as those whose enterprises have added to the vigor of our nation---from Emerson to Faulkner, Edison to Salk. Yet we celebrate more than gilt-edged names; we rejoice, too, in the millions of dreams, labors, victories, and struggles of countless private citizens. Those who came to these shores, from the Pilgrims to the present day, who reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific to settle this land, who raised families and factories and houses, who sacrificed and strove and searched---they too have woven the fabric of this nation.
But the Fourth of July is not merely a retrospective holiday. We should also use this moment to reflect on the challenges facing the current republic. Our present trials are legion, as perhaps they always seem. Yet the intensity of these days seems to suggest a nation caught with anxiety about the prospect of its decline.
The power of “reflection and choice” for which Hamilton spoke is counterposed to that of irritation and resentment. Make no mistake: Americans have much to be angry---or at least concerned---about. The new millennium has not been an easy one for this American republic. The pillars of American self-identity have been attacked, including electoral legitimacy, national security, economic success, and sense of freedom.
November of 2000 inaugurated this new era of anxiety, with the most contentious presidential election in well over a century. Whoever had triumphed after election day would have been tainted in some way. George W. Bush, the man who did win, inherited a recession that has since blossomed into a long-term economic stagnation.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 crystallized the sense of a national identity under attack. The World Trade Center---symbol of American cosmopolitanism, modernity, and economic ambition---and the Pentagon---emblem of the American military order that plays such a role in world affairs---were both attacked by that quintessentially American invention: the airplane. The enemies of Western liberalism and wealth used the very instruments of that civilization to bring it down. For a moment, it seemed as though the nation would rally in response to this challenge---that politics would find a new direction, that the civic compact would be reinforced, that a shock of this trial would rejuvenate our democratic energies. Yet soon enough, this vital force was confronted with a deluge of glib pessimism, alienation, cynicism, and despair. Missteps in the lead up and aftermath of the ousting of Saddam Hussein, continuing challenges in Afghanistan, geopolitical turmoil, and fraught debates about coping with postmodern terrorism have deepened our public disagreements and, in many cases, called into question the capacities of the governing elite. The new homeland security state has had many excesses and numerous missteps. Even as our nation has faced new challenges of terrorism, it has also faced an international order morphing into something (what remains to be determined) at an accelerating pace.
Meanwhile, the economy stumbled along throughout much of the 2000s, fed by the thin gruel of skyrocketing debt, until it nearly fell off the precipice into oblivion during the meltdown of late 2008. Our nation’s finances have not yet collapsed, but growth over the past decade has been slower than at any other period in recent memory and unemployment remains at unusually high levels. The wages of the vast majority of Americans have stagnated even as the wealth of the richest has increased. The present administration came in with great promises, many of which have been broken, discounted, or forgotten. Its economic plans in particular have fallen far short of its own expectations (though the economic plans of the Bush administration ultimately disappointed many as well). Under the prevailing economic conditions of the past few years, our government finances are headed to ruin.
Precisely where our government was supposed to be the strongest, its flaws proved most glaring. The failures of the broader governing class were evident by 2008, though this class has remained mostly untouched by the effects of this failure.
The political pendulum has swung back and forth over the past decade, with increasing ferocity: drifting to the Republicans in 2002 and 2004, hard to Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and back with a vengeance to the Republicans in 2010. As the sense of national frustration has deepened over the past decade, the sense of urgency for each newly-empowered party has heightened. Barack Obama in 2008 was supposed to right the excesses of the Bush administration and restore the sound footing of the economic order and point the way to a brighter America. The Republicans in 2010 were supposed to right the excesses of the Obama administration and restore the sound footing of the economic order and point the way to a brighter America. The similarity here is in more than syntax.
Many partisan orthodoxies have failed, and new paths need to be found. This failure of conventional wisdom has opened up a vacuum in the public space. Scapegoating has rushed to fill it. We live in a time of many scapegoats: the rich, the unions, heartland bigots, the ruling class, faux free marketeers, crypto-socialists, Christianists, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, progressives, anarcho-capitalists, statists, and on and on and on. The brain tires at the mere thought of that endless list of endless calumnies, and the body politic is no less exhausted by them.
In a two-party country, it is easy to see why politics has a tendency to focus on assailing one’s opponents: the ballot box is a zero-sum game, and a decline in the other party means a victory for one’s own. But societies as a whole are not themselves zero-sum. The enrichment of one’s neighbors does not imply one’s own impoverishment, nor does one’s own gain in wealth consign others to poverty. The promise of capitalism is, in part, the promise of cooperative enrichment. But there is a dire flip side to this sunny proposition---just as a community can cooperatively become richer, so too can it become poorer.
America cannot afford to cannibalize itself, as citizen turns against citizen. The crucial failure of scapegoating is in its obsession with the fate of a part in order to distract from the fate of the whole. What debilitates our country is not the fact that a union worker (in the private or the public sector) gets fair pay and good benefits; far more problematic is the fact that so many jobs have decreasing pay and winnowing benefits. Honest wealth honestly acquired should be thought of as a value to this republic and not as an injustice. Those with whom we disagree need not be enemies or existential threats to the foundation of the republic.
Instead of indulging in self-destructive antagonisms, we must enter a period of renewing reform. These reforms may have their share of pain, but we ought to use our reason to ensure that this pain is as fairly and as efficiently distributed as possible.
The strength of America comes in part from its faith in its people and in its ability to renew itself. Those who chose to come to America, from whom many of us descend, were willing to embrace change. Those who founded this nation believed in the capacities of a fresh republic, one that would be in accord with the principles of liberty. The American free market is premised on the belief in the broader wisdom of American society (at least compared to that of central planners).
The power of this nation also comes from its striving after the ideal. However troubled their actual enterprise may have been, the Puritans did not rest content with the flawed nature of man but reached for some higher city. The great ideals of the Declaration and Constitution show the ambition of the Founders to use the instruments of government in order to effect a revolution in human life. The abolitionists of the nineteenth century and civil rights warriors of the twentieth often staked their lives on the principle that our nation could go forward and wash away the stains of false bigotry and institutionalized oppression. Great accomplishments have been made not by defeatism but by perseverance and flexibility.
We have inherited both a great nation and a great government. The gleam of the potential of this government, the fruit of centuries of toil, has not, to my eyes at least, dimmed with time. Let us move from thinking of government as the enemy or as a weapon against our private enemies to thinking of it instead as a tool for advancing the greater causes of this republic: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government is not the only tool for advancing these causes, but human society is necessarily political, so any approach that would realize these causes must consider the case of government. That very faith in the American people also applies to those citizens who are servants of this American republic; we can have faith that, somehow, politics can go forward, however recalcitrantly, in the direction of virtue.
Realizing government as a tool for advancing those purposes outlined in the Declaration need not be an endorsement in an endlessly expansive government; at times, government can be the best tool by restraining its power, by not involving itself, by not intervening in the ebullience of the private life of this republic. The rights we have may not ultimately derive from government, but government often has a role in guaranteeing these rights. There is, as ever, a careful balancing act here, but many carefully laid bricks help constitute the foundation of this republic.
There comes a time in great societies when their vital force fails. Rome’s citizens chose empire over self-discipline. The German commonwealths, a European flower of learning, diversity, and literature, succumbed to the martial and recriminative temptations of the Kaiser and the Third Reich. Our own nation nearly dissolved in the cataclysm known as the Civil War.
Yet, with great perseverance, our republic survived and broke the yoke of slavery that had weighed so heavily for so many years. Great trials can recast us and renew us---if we have the will to face them. We can either accept a bitter decline or take up the challenges of the day.
Let us not be distracted and let us not despair. The faith of the Revolution was fed by the belief that our problems are tractable. Even if we cannot solve all the challenges this nation or liberal government in general faces, we can at least cope with them.
Let the United States still be, as Benjamin Franklin hoped, the republic of the rising sun. Rather than chewing over the resentments of the past, we should instead seek the triumphs of the future. Now is not the time to surrender to resentment or despair or petty hate. Now is not the time to accept deflecting blame as victory. Now is not the moment to forswear the potential of these United States.
We can still engage in enterprises of reason and merit. However old or frail our hands, we can still reach. Rather than being dirges or complacent ditties, the songs of the Fourth of July can still call us to our higher purposes of fellowship, happiness, liberty, and virtue.