When the first European settlers came to North America and dispersed into the forests and across the open plains, they had only their own initiative, ingenuity, and self-reliance to depend upon.
No one was there to counsel them about the requirements for survival. Freedom and responsibility were defined by harsh realities.
Intrepid settlers also relied on one another as neighbors, so long as each took responsibility for themselves. Self-reliance and the acceptance of personal responsibility are sources of self-respect and lead to mutual respect among neighbors. Whining and complaint don’t fly, however tough the circumstances.
I believe we will soon find ourselves coming full circle to a time when some of the requirements of frontier life may become necessary once again.
The physical circumstances are different and our independence as self-sufficient individuals is generally gone, but the challenges will increasingly resemble those of an earlier time when we were forced to stand on our own feet, depending on inventiveness, cooperation, and reliability.
In the early years of European settlement, American frontier life required little organization other than that prescribed by the traditions of English common law, and common decency. But, as populations became more concentrated, it was not long before undisciplined enthusiasm and competitiveness roiled civil order.
Thinking people soon found themselves responding to growing contentiousness – and the dangers of majority rule, which threatened to suppress individual initiative and minority liberties.
Democracy was a new idea 200 years ago. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with concerns about the growing intensity of divisiveness in the civil order, and recognition that the future Republic would see changes and stresses that were hard to imagine.
Libertarian sentiments were strong among Americans in the 18th century. There was a natural fear of the social and political oppressiveness colonists had so recently fled from in their European past. Many had strong feelings about protecting the freedom they experienced in their daily lives.
Despite deep personal sympathies with this viewpoint, the Founders recognized that majority factions had no compunctions against suppressing the interests or rejecting the needs of anyone who differed with them. Given a perspective inherited from European history it was easy to imagine a violent and tumultuous future.
The Constitution of the United States is the product of this tension and a determination to create a dynamic framework capable of protecting freedoms and yet absorbing the forces of conflict and change that would surely come.
The Constitution is a legal document, not a guide to rational behavior. It is designed to provide the stability upon which liberty depends, a structure for governance and a set of practical rules.
It does not supply the values and attitudes, or the crucial necessity for cooperation among equals, upon which its’ effectiveness must depend.
The forthcoming book, on which this blog is based, is largely devoted to this challenge. Before addressing the future, however, let us first place our current challenges in historical context, and consider the foundational principles and visionary institutions Americans already possess.
How do we understand our role in allowing the Constitution to function according to its’ design and purpose?
How do we understand the true meaning of freedom, and what are the practical constraints required by freedom if it is to survive in an orderly, civilized context?
How did the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formulate a structure for governance that would preserve a balance between freedom and stability? How did they endeavor to encourage a role for civic responsibility that it might prevail into a future they could only barely imagine?
Structural stability is written into the formation of the Republic. The rest depends on us. Instability begins with a lack of foresight and an inability to compromise. Solutions will only be found through moral responsibility, emotional restraint, and cooperative problem-solving.
We stand today at an extraordinary turning point. Let’s not throw away our inheritance and attempt to start over from nothing.
Next on the Blog! The United States Constitution depends on mutual respect and a strong sense of moral and social responsibility, a careful balance that requires commitment to citizenship and readiness to compromise. Please watch for the next post on or about Friday, October 14.