The United States Constitution is a legal document. It is carefully crafted in structure and intentionality. But it is far more than a simple contract. It embodies a vision and a trust. It was prepared for us by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.
It is important that we understand this because the Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance. The freedom it promises is made real in a legislative order and in the protections it provides.
These are among the essential elements of a society that provides both stability and the creative space to forge a future.
I have been sharing my observations with you about the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.
The authors of the Constitution made deliberate assumptions about the character of the American people. Their contract with us was an act of faith, an expression of the belief that Americans could be entrusted with the future.
This is made clear in the Constitution itself.
In the previous post I shared views from several of the Founders quoted by Charles Murray in his book, “Coming Apart”. I will repeat two of them here:
Patrick Henry was insistent: “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”
And, George Washington in his farewell address: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
“Everyone involved in the creation of the United States,” writes Charles Murray, “knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry–not gentility, but virtue…. In their various ways the founders recognized that if a society is to remain free, self-government refers first of all to individual citizens governing their own behavior.”
How do we feel about this idea? It’s a little scary, wouldn’t you say?
There were reasons why the Founders thought this way. A high degree of moral responsibility was necessary, Charles Murray continues, “because of the nearly unbridled freedom that the American Constitution allowed the citizens of the new nation.
“Americans were subject to criminal law… and to tort law, which regulated civil disputes. But otherwise, Americans faced few legal restrictions on their freedom of action and no legal obligations to their neighbors except to refrain from harming them.
“The guides to their behavior at any more subtle level had to come from within.”
Virtues are the substance of good character. But this is not instilled in us by nature.
Good character cannot be formed in a vacuum. We learn what matters in life by engaging meaningfully with other people. Personal character matures by means of relationship.
Regular readers will not be surprised when I suggest that virtues can only be lived and learned in community—where constructive relationships call for trust and dependability.
In genuine community we experience the necessity for trust every day—for truthfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility.
Without such virtues, life in human society is intolerable and security is out of reach.
Need I say more? Just look around you.
How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us? Well, breaking down barriers will take honest determination.
Living in community requires certain virtues. Adjusting to such disciplined conditions will take time, but the necessity must be confronted openly.
Dialog is the essence of genuine relationship. Developing character starts here.
Without give-and-take a relationship does not exist and problem-solving is impossible.
We may not respect the beliefs or behaviors of other people. But without a readiness to engage, to communicate openly and honestly, we are lost. This is how people change and grow.
If we cannot offer guidance patiently and believe in the potential for change, living in this world will never be safe or happy.
Our differences support problem-solving. Diversity brings experience and perspective, knowledge and skills.
We need these things. They are the instruments of safety and order.
However, differences that come at us with ugliness are a threat to all these things. Ugliness exhausts and debilitates. Mean-spiritedness pushes people away and shuts the door to life.
You may watch for the next post on or about September 8.