In 1787 the American Founders at the Constitutional Convention could see the future but dimly, yet they provided us with a structure for governance and a process for problem-solving that allowed for the contentious people they knew us to be.
We are fortunate to have received such an inheritance. As we look forward from the current state of disorder, how can we learn from and leverage this heritage?
If we can see little that appears dependable, where can we look for a realistic foundation?
Let’s not forget that local communities are the one place where we have the freedom and opportunity to meet shared needs and resolve local problems.
This is not the final solution, but it is the beginning of liberty. Authentic community is within our power to make real.
Community is the seat of civilization, and it is personal. It is here that we engage with one another face-to-face, building trust, tending to needs, learning patience and responsibility.
These things don’t just happen by coincidence. They are learned in the trials of hardship and necessity. They are born of loyalty, determination and purpose.
Like a family, the commitment to community forces us to mature as adult people—practically, emotionally, spiritually. Perhaps this is why so many avoid participating fully.
There are also other reasons for committing ourselves to local responsibility. Beyond the boundaries of family, community is the place to address the immediate needs we all face, to engage in respectful decision-making, and to solve shared problems.
Americans have abdicated personal responsibility for these aspects of civilized life for a long time, and we have done so at our peril.
It was not always this way. Prior to the American Revolution, and for close to 100 years afterward, Americans gravitated easily toward local governance and an independent frame of mind.
We managed our affairs in cooperation with our neighbors. We accepted regional autonomy as a natural condition.
Civil society flourished in the nineteenth century, when Americans created an immense variety of civic associations to address every conceivable social need and activity. We did this on our own initiative, inspired by a sense of belonging and the spirit of the times.
The rebirth of community spirit is more important today than it has ever been. And this is a practical matter.
It is only by engaging with our neighbors in all spheres of problem-solving that we learn the skills for living and working productively as neighbors and citizens.
Americans have done this before and we can do it again.
There are those who argue that the decentralist tradition of the American past represents an ideal we should aspire to. And this is an attractive vision. Yet, I think it is plain to see that a balance must be struck between a fully engaged civil society and a competent, trustworthy and limited central government.
OK, it is difficult indeed to imagine a limited central government managed by mature adults who are responsible for protecting both our freedoms and our security. But that is what we need.
Without law and a just governing structure there can be neither freedom nor safety. And, I believe that a valid vision of limited government can only come from genuinely functional communities and networks of communities.
Those who understand the necessity for trust and moral responsibility—and who recognize the very high stakes involved—will strengthen these foundations with their neighbors.
It is here that Americans have the potential to affirm trustworthiness and negotiate the future. Practical necessity can only be met with personal initiative and respectful dialog.
Building unity within communities is hard work, a process that takes time and depends on everyone.
Cohesive strength requires that we reach across our differences to influence the hearts and minds of neighbors, to form friendships and to truly know one another.
Cohesive strength does not come from uniformity. It is the context of differences that gives solid reinforced consistency to the proven capability of American strength.
This is the principle at the heart of the American heritage.
What is essential is that we refocus our vision in such positive terms as no divisiveness can subvert.
You may watch for the next post on or about April 12.
Sample drafts of chapters from the book manuscript are available at the top of the homepage.
I absolutely agree. In my lifetime I have seen many changes & challenges. In the 1950’s to present I saw the majority of family activities change. I remember family meals as a consistent dependable gathering of family members. It was as dependable as the rising & setting of the sun. In addition extended families gathered for holidays & special family occasions.
I have watched as parents joined the workforce & family schedules had to be altered.
I remember the majority of people familiar to me, attended a religious service of their choice on a regular basis some weekly & some more often.
I have seen working parents in jobs that included working days or nights & weekends, unable to attend the religious or spiritual gathering that provided community & activities that provided family structure.
I remember when Civic & Service organizations flourished. These organizations promoted volunteerism & provided a Community spirit among those who participated.
People within the community got to know each other through these many organizations. Services to the community were provided by people helping people, neighbors helping neighbors. There was concern for the “others”, whoever they might be.
Throughout the years I have seen many of these structures, organizations & the sense of community fade & sometimes disappear. Instead of getting to know one another, new people move into our towns & neighborhoods but no one reaches out to welcome them. People begin to fear the “others”. No one reaches out to newcomers or perhaps the newcomers aren’t interested in being involved in the community or with neighbors.
Eventually people begin to fear each other, they isolate & don’t participate with neighbors, community & service organizations. Society begins to fall apart & people become easily divided. That is where I see us now.
We need to learn to put principles above personalities & figure out how to get back on track. If we don’t figure out how to work together for the common good we will destroy ourselves from the inside. Remember that “United we stand, divided we fall”.
It is up to us to decide if we will pick ourselves up & choose a different path to unite our neighborhoods, our communities & our country. It will be challenging but necessary to make the changes. We are stronger & more capable than we think but we must get involved to get the job done.