When the first European settlers came to 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 understood what responsibility meant in the face of hardship. 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 the time is approaching when this may become important once again. And, the moral integrity that motivates us to assist one another will be as blind to differences as it was on the American frontier. Integrity is neither inhumane nor fickle.
Our physical circumstances are different now, and our independence as self-sufficient individuals is generally gone—but the coming challenges will increasingly resemble those of an earlier time. We are called upon even now to stand on our own feet and respond constructively to the unexpected.
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 the population grew, it was not long before undisciplined enthusiasm and competitiveness roiled the civil order.
Thinking people soon found themselves facing growing contentiousness and the dangers of majority rule, which threatened to suppress individual liberty and initiative.
Democracy was a new idea two centuries ago. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled with concerns about the intensity of divisiveness among the colonists, and recognition that the Republic would face future threats and unpredictable social and economic stress in the coming centuries.
Libertarian sentiments were strong among Americans in the 18th century. There was a natural fear of the oppressiveness of institutions from which they had so recently fled. Many had strong feelings about protecting the freedom they felt in America, a freedom that stood in marked contrast to the ever-present example of slavery.
The Founders were quite aware of the mood, and recognized that majority factions had no qualms about suppressing minorities or rejecting the interests of anyone who differed from them. Given the European experience it was easy to imagine a violent and tumultuous future.
The United States Constitution is the product of this tension, and the determination to create a dynamic framework capable of protecting freedoms while channeling the forces of conflict and change that would surely come.
The Constitution provides a structure for governance designed for an inherently contentious people. Yet, it is notable for its’ simplicity and provides few legal constraints. The Founders chose to depend on Americans to govern their own behavior.
The imperative that future Americans observe principled values and virtue ethics was clearly stated by Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Washington among others.
The Founders could not impose the virtues they expected of Americans, or the cooperation upon which the Constitution depends. However, the document itself makes such necessities self-evident.
The forthcoming book, upon which this blog is based, considers the history and implications of these challenges. How do we understand the meaning of freedom, and what are the practical constraints required by freedom itself in a civilized order?
How did the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formulate a structure for governance that would preserve a balance between majority and minority, freedom and stability? How did they endeavor to project freedom and order into a future they could only barely imagine?
Fairness and balance are written into the legal structure of the Republic. The rest depends on us.
Instability begins with lack of foresight, belligerence, and the inability to compromise. We are well over 300 million in number and we have differences. If we are to avoid catastrophe, genuine listening with the intent to understand and educate is essential.
Civilized solutions will only be possible through collaborative problem-solving enabled by the Constitution.
We stand today at an extraordinary turning point. We must not throw away our inheritance and imagine it possible to start over from nothing.
You may watch for the next post on or about March 30.
A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the coming book, and several completed chapter drafts are available at the top of the homepage.