The American Idea

What is the American Idea? How did it come to be? Where are we? Where are we going? In his Op-Ed The American Idea, author and blogger at Rick Turnquist reminds and reacquaints us with our United States history. He explains the challenges that we face today and what we must do to reclaim the vision of our American Idea.

Cora Munro: “Why were those people living in this defenseless place?”

Hawkeye: “After 7 years indentured service in Virginia, the frontier is the only land available to poor people. Out here they’re beholden to none. Not living by another’s leave.”

Major Heyward: “And who empowered these colonials to pass judgement on England’s policies in her own possessions, and to come and go without so much as a by your leave?”

Cora Munro: “They do not live their lives by your leave! They hack it out of the wilderness with their own two hands, bearing children along the way.”

Conversation from the 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans”

The Pilgrims

In September of 1620 a ship departed England, carrying over 100 passengers and crew to sail across the dangerous North Atlantic Ocean. This ship, known as Mayflower, was at best 100 feet long with a cargo capacity of 180 tons. The families who sailed in Mayflower were seeking religious freedom – the freedom to worship as they saw fit. These brave souls landed in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, and formed the second surviving English colony in North America.

The Pilgrims were risk-takers and while they had help from the indigenous people who were already there, they made their way without any government assistance or handout of any kind.

I invite the reader to sit back and imagine, for a moment, embarking on a tiny wooden ship to sail across a vast ocean to an unknown land; and once having arrived there, making your own living out of the wilderness. Imagine, further, that there IS no government – no safety net. Nothing to fall back upon.

Freedom of religion was so important to these people that they were willing to risk their very lives for it.

The Colonists

The Pilgrims were just the beginning. Between 1620 and the eve of the Revolutionary War, the European settlements on the North American continent grew from a handful of people to around 2.4 million people living in 13 colonies on the eastern seaboard. These mostly British people brought with them a strong sense of self-determination. While they were subject to the Crown of England, they were at the same time developing their own sense of what they wanted their lives to be and what they wanted their government to look like.

During the French and Indian War, tensions developed between the British colonists and England, over such things as quartering troops, militia service, taxation, and the like.

The Revolution and the Constitution

Because of these tensions, resistance to English rule grew until fighting broke out on April 19, 1775 when British Army soldiers attempted to seize the military supplies (guns and ammo) stored by the colonial militia at Concord. Forewarned by the legendary Paul Revere and his counterpart Samuel Prescott, the colonists stood to defend their stores. Shots rang out as the sun was rising and eight militiamen fell dead – the first casualties in the War of American Independence.

After initially retreating because they were outnumbered, the militia reinforcements arrived and forced the British regulars back toward Boston in a tactical withdrawal.

A little over a year later, the Continental Congress – an elected body representing each of the 13 colonies and directing the war effort against the British – was in session in the city of Philadelphia, PA. Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee proposed a “Resolution for Independence” declaring that the thirteen British colonies were “free and independent states”. This resolution was passed unanimously on July 4. First introduced in early June of 1776, it took several weeks to work out the politics of passing the resolution which included writing a formal declaration of independence. A committee of five members was formed, and the declaration was debated for several days. The final version of the Declaration was approved and signed on July 4.

The Declaration of Independence is a profound statement of human rights, and the Preamble states:

“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. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.-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…”

The first government designed and created by the Second Continental Congress – the Articles of Confederation – went into force on March 1, 1781.

The Articles provided for a very weak central government. Why? Because the colonists had just fought a long and bloody war to escape what they believed to be a tyrannical government. They knew from firsthand experience the dangers of a government that is too powerful.

As time went on, however, the citizens of the new nation discovered that the central government was in fact too weak, and the prominent political thinkers of the time set about to amend the Articles or create a whole new Constitution. The meeting of the states started when their representatives met in Philadelphia in May 1787 (11 years after the Declaration of Independence). After months of preparation, debate and ratification, the original Constitution was adopted on March 4, 1789 and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) were ratified and adopted on December 15, 1791.

Growth and Civil War

One of the things the Constitution called for was a census, or count, of all “persons living in each State”. The population of the United States in 1790, the year the first census was conducted, was 3,929,214 in 13 states along the Eastern seaboard.

Seventy years later, in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, the United States had grown to 31,443,321 people in 33 states and 9 territories and a relatively cohesive nation spanning the continent. There were serious fault lines, to be sure, centered around the horrific practice of human slavery, and this divide erupted into a shooting war in April of 1861, when the southern states refused to accept the results of the 1860 presidential election and determined to secede from the United States.

The problem of slavery in America’s founding is far too broad and deep for this essay. The United States was the first nation in history to not only declare that “all men are created equal”, it was the first nation to fight a war to end the legal practice of slavery. To learn more, there is a list of suggested readings.

To recap this history very briefly, in 1854 a new political party was formed by opponents of human slavery. This party was called the Republican Party and the first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln. The first party platform, adopted in 1856, affirms the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence, reaffirms that no person should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, and it is the duty of the party to maintain this provision of the Constitution “…against all attempts to violate it for the purpose of establishing slavery in the Territories of the United States by positive legislation, prohibiting its existence or extension therein.” In other words, the Republican Party was formed to lead America in fulfilling the ideals expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration.

The United States Civil War was fought by the northern and western states and territories comprising the Union against the southern states comprising the Confederate States of America. And let’s be clear, the Democratic Party – yes, the same party as today – controlled every single Southern state.

With twice the population and more economic strength, the Union defeated the Confederacy and abolished the practice of human slavery in America. To do so, about 600,000 Union soldiers – mostly white – were casualties against the almost 500,000 – again mostly white – CSA soldiers. The number of civilians, mostly in the South, who lost their lives is high as well.

The Triumph of Capitalism

In the beginning, the Unites States economy was based on the concept of private property, sanctity of contract and the objective rule of law. The federal government was, by design, small and limited to certain specific functions. In 1790, there were no income taxes, no sales taxes, no severance taxes, and indeed very little taxation at all. The sources of revenue for the federal government were tariffs, excise taxes and land sales.

This was intentional on the part of the Founders, who were knowledgeable about economics and human nature. It’s no coincidence that the seminal work on capitalism – Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. This work laid the foundations for what we understand as classical free market economic theory.

It’s not an understatement to say that 19th century America saw the most explosive economic growth in human history. Between 1800 and the eve of the Civil War in 1860, U.S. per-capital Gross Domestic Product grew by over 70%. From the end of the Civil War to the eve of World War Two, it grew a further 106%. During this time, despite some scope creep, the federal government was still largely within its constitutional limits.

The era is more fully explored in the excellent book Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Woodridge. Warning: reading this book will make you fall in love with America all over again!

Cancer and Bankruptcy

Unfortunately for America and those of us who love the principles of the American Founding, two separate but related phenomena occurred in the latter half of the 19th century. One of these was the birth of one of the most evil men to have ever lived, and the other was the rise of the progressive movement in America.

From Wikipedia:

“Karl Heinrich Marx; 5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883[13]) was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary.
Marx’s critical theories about society, economics, and politics, collectively understood as Marxism, hold that human societies develop through class conflict.

The political philosophy based on Marx’s theories, loosely known as “socialism” (which encompasses the concept of “communism”) has been demonstrated to fail at promoting human flourishing EVERY TIME IT HAS BEEN TRIED, from ancient communes to the modern slave states of which North Korea is the starkest example. Literally hundreds of millions of human beings lost their lives at the sovereign hand of their legal governments in the 20th century due to this poisonous belief system. (See my essay On Socialism for more.)

Another school of political thought arose from the carnage of the Civil War. This was the belief that society should be run on a “scientific” basis by “experts”, that ordinary people like those we elect to local, state and national offices are unqualified to lead us. (Just look at how modern progressives invoke “science”.) This, in a nutshell, is the foundation of the “progressive” movement which has been an accelerating force in our national politics since the late 1800s.

The early progressives were able to pass two truly terrible amendments that have been very detrimental to America: the 16th and 17th amendments, both of which were passed in 1913. The 16th is the one that enables the government to deprive you by force of a percentage of your earnings every year. The 17th is the one that disenfranchised the states in the United States Senate by establishing popular election of senators.

Over the course of the 20th century and into the current century, the related philosophies of socialism and progressivism have become ever more closely aligned and have found a welcoming home in the Democratic Party, which was never a friend to the concepts enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.

With the implementation of a slew of government programs in the 1930s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) including Social Security through the further expansion of government in the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) including Medicare and Medicaid (which consume billions of dollars and make up almost half of the federal budget) the United States government has grown far, far beyond the limited functions that it was given in the Constitution.

Not only that, the total national debt now exceeds the entire value of the United States economy, and the federal government is spending more and more money, some of it financed by taxes, but most of financed by borrowing.

What happens when your debts exceed your assets, and you don’t have the cash to pay your bills? On an individual or business level, it’s called “bankruptcy”. On a national level, it’s called “sovereign default’.

Now, with President Joe “The Big Guy” Biden (D) proposing new spending packages of a couple trillion here and a couple trillion there, this problem is only going to get worse. If they can’t raise your taxes (though they will try), they will inflate the currency (which is already happening). Either way, ordinary hard-working Americans lose.

And while it is facile and easy to blame this looming crisis (and it WILL happen – the United States is not immune to the laws of economics and human nature) on the Democrats, it’s just not the whole story. The whole story is that progressivism and the belief in government as a necessary force in society has largely infected the Republican party as well, and this problem is a bipartisan one. While we would like to think Republicans are more fiscally responsible, I don’t look at the federal budget and think that is the case.

To learn more about how the progressive Left has become ascendant in today’s culture, I recommend the excellent book Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance by the late Barry Rubin.

The American Idea

I believe the divide in today’s America rivals that of the nation in the 1850s. There are two starkly different, competing and mutually exclusive views of what America has been, should be and will be going forward. And while this divide is not yet a regional shooting war, there is an undercurrent of political violence in our nation that is quite disturbing.

With many young people embracing the idea of socialism (despite not really knowing what it is) and the overly strident voices of the social justice warriors, it’s easy to think that the Left will continue to be dominant and will win out, creating an America that is dark, dismal and poor. Because they hate fossil fuels, we will be living in cold, dark hovels with intermittent electricity and expensive gasoline. Because they hate limited government, we will live under a bureaucratic tyranny that will be just as bad as living under King George III. Because they hate capitalism, they will continue to push the creeping socialism we’ve seen in our nation over the last 100 years.

But I don’t agree with that view. America was founded on the idea of FREEDOM. From the Pilgrims who came to North America seeking religious freedom to the patriots who immortalized the words in the Declaration of Independence to the modern-day libertarian conservatives and freedom fighters who work every day for a freer America, I believe that people will, in the end, choose freedom over force, cooperation over coercion and Liberty over Leftism.

America is the only nation ever founded on a creed – that all men are created equal. THAT is what makes America exceptional.

What can you do? Be a part of the conversation. Pay attention to local politics – the composition of your local school board or town council will have far more impact on you and your children than will the occupant of the White House. What happens at your state capital is far more important than what happens in the U.S. Congress.

Don’t rely on the courts to strike down bad laws. We’ve seen that the Supreme Court of the United States is quite capable of some terrible decisions. I have a better idea: let’s not elect politicians who will create bad, unconstitutional laws in the first place.
Raise your voice. Be heard. Stand for Liberty against Tyranny. Stand for America. Celebrate this Fourth of July with a remembrance of what America stands for.



One Response

  1. In your essay, you point specifically to the Constitutional Amendments establishing the Income Tax (16) and disenfranchising the states by establishing Direct Election of Senators (17) as critical institutional steps turning America’s central government into a vast, war mongering, leviathan “progressive” administrative state. I would add the 1910 creation of the Federal Reserve Bank as perhaps even a greater enabler of that transformation. The Convention of States Project has called for a U.S. Constitution Article V Convention, to proposed Amendments to be adopted by the states outside the Federal Government. Its goals are “restricted to proposing amendments that will impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its power and jurisdiction, and impose term limits on its officials and members of Congress.” If a Convention of States Party were formed to propose candidates supporting specific amendments (1) repealing the 16th Amendment, (2) repealing the 17th amendment [which would restrict the central government to a much smaller size], (3) auditing and abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank, (4) reinstating sound money and (4) imposing term limits on government office holders and members of Congress, could it not influence the debates and primaries of 2022 and 2024? Yes, of course details would also have to be decided, and enacted both by individual states and by Congress after the transformation of repeal of the 17th amendment. The concepts could put people disgusted by the disintegration we see in our country, who number close to half the country, into a movement to re-vitalize the American Ideal over the next few election cycles.

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