The Great Question
Young Americans Foundation
Santa Barbara, California
November 13, 2010
Ronald Reagan often said that the past four centuries proved that Providence plainly had a purpose in placing this continent between two vast oceans, preparing it to receive what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of mankind,” the American Republic.
After the victory at Yorktown, the American Founders began to realize that they had a fleeting opportunity to put all of the tyranny, injustice, corruption and misery of Europe behind them and as Thomas Paine put it, “to make the world over again.”
And so this remarkable group of men, aided by the great thinkers of the enlightenment, looked far back into history and deep into our own human nature and began to ask fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of government itself.
What is government? That’s an important question if you’re creating one. What is it?
An observation often attributed to Washington came closest to the mark when he observed, “Government is neither eloquence nor reason. Government is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.”
That’s a powerful metaphor for someone in the 18th Century. Fire was essential to heat your home and cook your food. But inherent in its very nature was the ability to destroy your home and ultimately your neighborhood and your city.
And if you think about it, government is exactly and precisely force. Every law that we pass, from the law that says you have to stop at a stop sign to the law that says you can’t punch somebody in the nose ultimately ends up being enforced at the point of a gun. There are no exceptions – government is force. Plain and simple.
If force is the nature of government, then what is its purpose? The Founders had answered that question at the outset of their struggle. It is a uniquely American answer. You’ll find it in those familiar words of the American Declaration of Independence – words that we often recite but rarely swell upon.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” – and then the answer to that question: what is the purpose of government – “that to secure THESE rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when ANY form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
There are many democracies around the world today and many republics – but only one, to my knowledge, is founded upon this unique American doctrine: that there are a certain class of rights that we are born with – they are simply deduced from the natural order of things – from the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” as the Founders put it.
How do you deduce these rights? They are the rights you would have if you were alone in the world. They make no demands on anyone else. The Founders gave some examples, “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” Essentially, the right to be left alone as long as you’re not injuring any other person’s natural rights.
You have the right to the fruit of your own labor; the right to raise your children according to your own values; the right to enter into voluntary associations with others for your mutual betterment; the right to your opinions and to express those opinions freely; the right to your religious beliefs and to worship freely; in short, the right to live your own life according to your own best judgment.
The source of these rights is the foundation of American freedom, and the Founders were explicit on this point: We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. That’s a critically important concept. Rights that are given to us by God cannot be legitimately taken away from us by any earthly power. They cannot be alienated. If God has given you those rights, no person can take those rights away.
In the American view, the only legitimate use of force by one person over another or by a government over its people is in the defense of these natural rights.
Part of the great question being decided today is whether this foundation of American liberty is to endure. There is a concerted effort by the American Left to remove references to God from our public buildings, from our public ceremonies, from our currency, and there is a reason for this that has nothing to do with aethiesm – it has everything to do with authoritarianism. If the source of these rights is not God, then the source of these rights is human – or more to the point, a government of humans. And if those rights come from government, then they can also be withdrawn by government.
In the American view, you can repeal the Bill of Rights, but that doesn’t change the fact that those rights still exist. In the authoritarian view, those rights only exist at the sufferance of your government – or more precisely, the official within your government.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French philosopher, came to America in 1836, ostensibly to study prisons but he had a much more important question on his mind. If you were a Frenchman in 1836, you would know exactly what that question was.
The American and French revolutions were fought within 13 years of each other; in fact, the French were inspired by the Americans. The French revolution was fought on the same principles, against the same kind of monarchy, with the same avowed goals.
One had blossomed as this magnificent success: the American Republic. The other had culminated in one of the most ghastly failures in the history of the world: The Reign of Terror.
Tocqueville wanted to know what the Americans did so right and the French did so wrong. He travelled to America and wrote one of the most perceptive observations about our country ever written, “Democracy in America.”
In it, one of the prevailing themes was this critical difference. The Americans believe their rights come from God. The French believed their rights came from government, or more precisely, from the “Committee on the Rights of Man.”
The French found that if their rights were given by man they could be taken by man. “Do the Americans believe in God,” Tocqueville asked. He said, I don’t know. Who can look into the heart of a man? But I do know this: the Americans believe this concept is absolutely essential to the preservation of their liberty.
Having answered these fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of government, the Founders then went to work to fashion a government that would be strong enough to protect these God-given rights, but not so strong as to threaten these rights.
And that’s not an easy question. In Federalist 51, James Madison put the problem quite clearly:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
How do you do that? Let’s be honest; we’re hierarchical creatures. As the great philosopher Jack Handy of Saturday Night Live fame once put it, “In a previous life I must have been a great king, because I really like it when people do what I tell them.”
The Founders knew that human nature holds an inherent conflict. We’re all Jack Handy – we all like it when people do what we tell them to. But we’re always happier and more prosperous when we’re left alone to do as we please. We are all authoritarians. We are all libertarians.
The Founders sought to employ our own nature against itself to contain the natural authoritarian tendency of government and to preserve our liberty. They did that through the Constitution, by employing what is often called “Mother’s Rule.”
“Mother’s Rule” is very simple. Suppose you have two hungry brothers and one slice of pie. How do you divide that pie so that both brothers go away satisfied. And before you say, “right down the middle,” what are you going to do with the cherry, with the part that has too much crust, or the jagged edge where somebody cut a corner on one side?
You can write pages and pages of regulations on this subject and still one brother will still claim he got the smaller piece.
Mother has a different approach. One brother slices. The other chooses.
The ambitions of one check and contain the ambitions of the other. Both go away satisfied every time.
But how would it work if the same brother who sliced, also got to choose the piece he had just sliced?
That is why the American Founders drafted the Constitution the way it is. The checks and balances within our system are simply “Mother’s Rule” writ large.
The powers of government are divided horizontally among three branches – each fulfilling a different function and containing the ambitions of the other two. And the powers of government are divided horizontally between the states and the national government, apportioning to the national government certain enumerated powers to protect and preserve the Union, and leaving all other matters to the individual states.
Ronald Reagan summed it up best when he said, “The Constitution is not the government’s document telling the people what they can and cannot do. The Constitution is the people’s document telling the government those things that we will allow it to do.”
And this brings us to the fine point of the matter and to the great question before us.
This uniquely American notion of individual rights and constitutionally limited government is utterly despised by those with authoritarian designs, because it makes it impossible for them to subordinate those rights to their designs.
This concept is antithetical to American liberty. It is the notion that the purpose of government is not to protect our natural God-given rights, but rather to improve society in whatever manner those in power believe it should be improved. Individual rights are granted by the government and subordinate to the needs of society.
Lincoln put it this way in his last debate with Stephen Douglas in October of 1858. He said,
“That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other is the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Reagan echoed these remarks when he spoke to Eureka College in 1957. He said:
“This is a simple struggle between those of us who believe that man has the dignity and sacred right and the ability to choose and shape his own destiny and those who do not so believe. This irreconcilable conflict is between those who believe in the sanctity of individual freedom and those who believe in the supremacy of the state.”
This is the age old struggle. And we are watching it come to a head in our own time, in our own country.
What Lincoln called the common right of humanity and what Reagan called the sanctity of individual Freedom is now pitted in a life or death struggle with what Lincoln called the Divine Right of Kings and what Reagan called “the Supremacy of the State.”
I believe this is an age-old struggle that exists as long as humanity exists – because there are elements of both within our own human nature. But they are polar opposites in the realm of governance. They are incompatible concepts.
This is what Lincoln meant in the Summer of 1858, when he reminded us that “A house divided against itself cannot stand."
“I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
“It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Then, the issue was between Freedom and Slavery. Today the issue is Freedom and Socialism. But it is exactly the same issue in whatever shape it develops itself.
That is the issue that is now being decided by the American people – not in the halls of government. The Debates in Capitols and City Halls are merely a reflection of a much larger debate going on among the American people. It is going on right now over backyard fences and family dinner tables and coffee at Starbucks.
And Lincoln was right, this debate will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.
Upon the outcome of this debate rests nothing less than the question shall the United States of America simply fade away into history as another failed socialist state – or will this generation of Americans rediscover, revive and restore those uniquely American principles of individual freedom and constitutionally limited government that once produced the most prosperous and successful republic in the history of human civilization.
No one has a greater stake in this than your generation – because as a practical matter, you all are going to be around a lot longer than those now in the halls of government to deal with the result.
In May of 1780, John Adams poured his heart out to his wife, Abigail, in a letter in which he wrote,
"The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
That wheel has come full circle. The issues decided by the founding generation and reaffirmed by the Civil War generation are once again up for grabs.
The good news is that we have seen before what Americans do when they sense the approach of a common danger and they rise to the occasion. They set aside their personal lives and begin devoting enormous amounts of their time and energy to understanding the issues, exercising good judgment and setting things right.
It is something that the Obama Left does not understand and cannot possibly comprehend: it is called the Spirit of America – and we are seeing it summoned once again in our own time.
Each of you is here today because you are a part of that – a leading part of that. Learn these principles; learn them well; and take them to your generation. And remember, the American Founders didn’t call them “self-evident” truths for nothing. It helps to explain it to people, but when you do, they get it.
Late in life, a protégé of Frederick Douglass, the great abolition leader, came to him to ask, “What do we do now?”
He answered with three words: “Agitate, agitate and agitate.” We are in a great battle of ideas. Ours can be summed up in a single word: Freedom.
Take that message to every forum that you can find: write letters to the editor; call in to talk shows, twitter and blog. If you see an article that you think is important, email it to your friends, leave a comment, discuss it on facebook and Myspace and every other forum you can find.
That’s where the fight is right now.
And don’t get discouraged. The Left will excoriate and insult you and try to marginalize you. That’s their expertise – leave it to them – they’re not our teachers.
And some people never will get it. Adams remarked that throughout the American revolution, fully a third of our countrymen were Tories. In occupied France during World War II, about a third of the population was Vichy. These are the folks that Samuel Adams addressed when he said, “If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chain be set lightly upon you and may posterity forget ye were our countrymen.”
But if you speak your truth clearly in every forum that you can find, you will discover that the other two thirds of your countrymen crave freedom, and will fight for freedom in every forum that they can find. Educate them and animate them.
We’re watching that happen with the Tea Party. Despite the left’s attempts to belittle them and marginalize them, they are having a huge impact on American politics. In every poll, a larger portion of the American people now side with them than side with the current administration. Only about 60 percent of them are Republicans. Another 20 percent are independents and another 20 percent are Democrats. Long before the Tea Party, we had another name for this phenomenon: we called it the “Reagan Coaltion,” and today it is alive in a new generation.
In the winter of 1861, a train stopped in the town of Indianapolis to re-provision before the next leg of its journey. It had originated in Springfield Illinois, bound for Washington D.C.
A small crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of one of its passengers. To their surprise, Abraham Lincoln emerged and visited with them for a few minutes. A stenographer took down these words as he spoke to them.
He said, “Of the American people, it may be said, when they rise up united in defense of their Union and its liberties, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.’ I appeal to you, my fellow citizens, constantly to bear in mind that NOT with the President, NOT with the office-holders, but with YOU is the question, shall the liberties of our nation be preserved to the latest generation?”