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.
The Constitution comes to us as the gift of an inheritance. The freedom it promises is anchored in a legislative order, the protections it provides, and the power to seek constructive change.
These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and a rational space to forge the future.
I have shared my observations with you concerning the impediments we face if we are to make this gift effective.
The Founders made conscious 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 past posts I have shared the words of several of the Founders, which are 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.”
The Founders had good reason to think in 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 they are not instilled in us by nature.
Character is not formed in a vacuum. We learn what matters in life by engaging directly and meaningfully with family and community—people who need to depend on us.
Personal values can either mature or be degraded through interpersonal relationships. It is here that we experience the necessity for trust—for truthfulness, dependability, responsibility.
Without such virtues, life quickly becomes intolerable, and security is beyond reach.
How can we trust and respect others, you will ask, if they do not trust and respect us? Well, breaking down barriers will take time and patience, discipline and determination.
This begins with ourselves, and so also does our own self-respect.
We may not agree with the beliefs or behaviors of other people, but without truthfulness and a readiness to engage honestly and respectfully, we are lost.
Engaging with differences is not easy, especially in an age of extreme distrust. We must counter destructiveness with integrity and moral responsibility, yet always with emotional restraint.
True liberty rests firmly on human dignity and respect for others. Where these are not found, depravity flourishes and the mischief-maker is free to roam.
Note to readers: Please assist me with your comments; I value your feedback! You may watch for the next post on or about February 2.