When the United States, uniquely among historical national powers, established itself on the foundation of principles our founders purposely intended to establish us as a beacon among nations.  But they also created a high standard for national behavior that has proved a burden ever since.

The original Constitution explicitely set out the authority of the three branches of government but equally explicitely established the boundaries of that power and set each of the branches to watch over the others, especially requiring the legislative branch to oversee the conduct of the executive branch.  But its amendments very soon focused on the rights of citizens–to speak, to organize, to write and print, to worship, to be equal, and most importantly to be secure in their homes and property.

Those of us privileged to travel the world know the degree to which people around the world judge our adherence to the principles we proclaim.  Many Americans think we can say one thing and do another as a nation.  It is not true.  We are daily held to the high standard our founders set for the United States.  And, too often, we do not measure up either at home or abroad.

Most disquieting has been the tendency of our government to sacrifice our individual rights to the perceived need for security.  Threats, real or imagined, are almost immediately seen as grounds for suspending the Constitutional rights of the individual.  Nowhere is this more evident than the use of electronic surveillance in the age of terrorism.  And the current administration seems content to perpetuate some of the worst excesses of its predecessor.

No one said that principled democracy would be easy.  And of course Thomas Jefferson didn’t contemplate today’s technologies.  But he did know human nature.  And  he and his colleagues knew that it would be up to us to keep political power within its Constitutional boundaries and, even more, to insist that America live up to the principles it proclaims.

4 Responses to “The Burden and Triumph of Principle”

  1. nothingpetty Says:

    I remember the Joseph McCarthy years…this period we are now living, is not much different, except in its perceived enemies, much different.

  2. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    True Sir. And by the way, Happy 4th of July! You know what I really despise (and I don’t use that word lightly)? The way the Tea Party advocates invoke the Founders, but have no real clue as to who they really were. I’m not gonna profess expertise (far from it!) but can I mention Sarah Palin’s recent Paul Revere debacle? Warning the British that we were gonna protect our arms and remain armed? I THINK I have that right. Or something like it. And if I’m correct, Revere wasn’t listed among the ‘Founders’. That’s just the most recent. You have these folks dressing up in three corner hats and fife and drum and viola they are ‘founders’. Want to go back to the original meaning of the Founders and the Constitution. REALLY? Have they even read and comprehended the document? And here’s another point. The document has evolved WITH us. Check out the Amendments added. It reflects who we are TODAY. NOT the late eighteenth century! Life has changed, we’ve changed. SO IT has too! Oh, and about the Declaration of Independence we celebrate today? IT hasn’t changed. That is still what we were founded on. And we SHOULD celebrate it. And as for checks and balances? We’re unbalanced right now. The Supreme Court has been taken over by a conservative ‘cabal’. The Legislature? House taken over by the ‘cabal’, and the Senate is dysfunctional. And the Executive Branch (at least right now) seems to be emasculated. And by the way I admire President Obama. Just think he hasn’t been ‘tough enough’.

  3. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    My father often told a story about US Representative Wilbur Mills (Dem. AR), who for years was the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which had the responsibility to put forth new tax laws in Congress. Rep. Mills once stood on the floor of the House with a very tall stack of papers and held one sheet of paper in his had. He address the full House and said, “Gentlemen, this single sheet of paper states the tax law of this nation and says that all people will pay taxes.” He pointed to the large stack of papers and said, “These represent the exceptions to the law.” The same thing can be said about the Constitution of the United States. One sheet of paper can contain the whole of the actually wording of the Constitution. However, it takes much of the space within the Library of Congress to hold all of the exceptions to the Constitution that the Congress has passed and the opinions that United States Judiciary have handed down to limit the Constitution.

    How is the United States of America supposed to be a beacon of democracy for the rest of the world, when we are unable to say what our democracy even stands for?

  4. Brian C McCarthy Says:

    “Most disquieting has been the tendency of our government to sacrifice our individual rights to the perceived need for security. Threats, real or imagined, are almost immediately seen as grounds for suspending the Constitutional rights of the individual.”

    This has been done almost from Day 1 of the American Republic. The Alien and Sedition Acts, which John Adams regretted signing to his dying day, were the first significant step taken in sacrificing rights in the name of security in the US during a threat of war with France. Other measures were taken during the Civil War (habeas corpus), the Red Scare (deportations), World War II (internment of Japanese-Americans), the Cold War (Joseph McCarthy’s bogus investigations), and post 9/11 (the Patriot Act). When there is no threat, some “leaders” go looking for one to ostensibly unite the country by identifying a scapegoat. What can be done to break that cycle? I would like to think we have progressed as a nation since the days of the Alien & Sedition Acts, but those very same acts would have support in Congress today if proposed, would they not?

Leave a Reply

All comments are reviewed by a moderator prior to approval and are subject to the UCD blog use policy.