Is the United States a nation founded in timeless principles or one that is built to nimbly adjust to change? That’s the question columnist E.J. Dionne poses in a Fourth of July editorial for the Washington Post:
When it comes to the varieties of patriotism, I’d make the case that some of us look more toward the past and others to the future. Some Americans speak of our nation’s manifest virtues as rooted in old values nurtured by a deposit of ideas that we must preserve against all challengers. Others focus on our country’s proven capacity for self-correction and change.
As a result, one stream of reverence for our founders flows from a belief that they have set down timeless truths. The alternative view lifts them up as political and intellectual adventurers willing to break with old systems and accepted ways of thinking.
Calvin Coolidge’s address at at the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, is perhaps the best expression of the former view.
“It is not so much, then, for the purpose of undertaking to proclaim new theories and principles that this annual celebration is maintained, but rather to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound,” Coolidge said.
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.
The other side of Dionne’s divide is perhaps best argued in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Independence Day address from 1936. Roosevelt said of the Constitution’s fathers, “The source of their greatness was the stirring of a new sense of freedom. They were tasting the first fruits of self-government and freedom of conscience. They had broken away from a system of peasantry, away from indentured servitude. They could build for themselves a new economic independence. Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to beTheirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they out to be.”
Specifically, Roosevelt spoke of Thomas Jefferson, of whom Roosevelt said, “applied the culture of the past to the needs and the life of the America of his days.”
Who is right and who is wrong? Who is more patriotic? Who is more American? Who best delves into the minds of the founders?
I dare say that neither Roosevelt nor Coolidge would read conflict into their words. We are not stuck in they ways of the past anymore than we walk blindly into the future. Instead, we chart a forward-looking course with our founding principles as our North Star. With them in mind we shall never be lost, nor shall we wander off the unique and enlightened path that has led our nation to an example of freedom and prosperity.
We do not face a binary choice between stasis and progress because our principles are timeless. The debate cannot be whether or not the absolute right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has worn well with time, it must be whether government is properly advancing these principles according to the desires of the people. Too often it has not. Too often we have been made to believe that one of these principles must be traded in order to advance some other cause. And, as Ronald Reagan reminded us in his Independence Day address in 1986, too often we let our divisions overshadow the blessings of liberty:
My fellow Americans, it falls to us to keep faith with them and all the great Americans of our past. Believe me, if there’s one impression I carry with me after the privilege of holding for 5\1/2\ years the office held by Adams and Jefferson and Lincoln, it is this: that the things that unite us — America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country — these things far outweigh what little divides us. And so tonight we reaffirm that Jew and gentile, we are one nation under God; that black and white, we are one nation indivisible; that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans. Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world.
One nation indivisible. Why then, on this Independence Day, must we go looking for new ways to divide us?