Posted: July 9, 2014
Following a fading tradition, Claremont School Board President William B. Allen uses the Fourth of July as an occasion for reflection on the Founding principles of this nation. His address raises issues concerning the schools and civic education which the recent, well-publicized education studies have virtually ignored.
Each renewed celebration of American Independence augments the debt we owe to them who first proclaimed the essential truth that all men are created equal. We are fortunate still to be able to declare with the Founding Father, Fisher Ames, that the "abstract truths" struck off in grand and glorious congresses "still appear to us at home to be truths" simply. Must we not pause, though, to ponder what might be due from us-our installment payment-on the towering debt of inherited liberty which descends from the source of that truth?
It is not strange to speak of a debt to the past. It is not mere patriotic oratory. True, we rightly think we must rule our own lives. The dead hand of the past can neither issue nor obey commands. The ideal of self-government above all means our own governing of ourselves here and now. The debt we owe in no way lessens our accountability to ourselves. And it could not do so, for the debt we owe comes from the fact that we are able to govern ourselves. What we say about ruling our own lives and being our own persons is true not just of us but of human beings everywhere. All have the right and ought to have the chance to rule themselves. But we here may actually do so, while others elsewhere may not. It is no accident that we are able to do what others cannot now do. The free exercise of our rights comes from the investments made in freedom and equality by others who paid the price and staked their happiness on the chance that popular government is the best government. Each generation that has since passed had an opportunity to renounce its responsibility to perpetuate the experiment. To each of them, therefore, we in turn are indebted, for we have from their hands the opportunity and the duty to decide the question whether men are capable of self-government. But our debt is higher, the duty greater, for we have just so many more examples than they had that the answer to the question is yes.
Long ago many Americans observed a day of national celebration on December 22 of each year. They honored that day as Forefathers' Day, recalling when the first settlers landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. While we continue to marvel at the hardihood and moral strength of the early wayfarers who first set up a home for freedom in the dead of winter upon sterile and rocky shores, how much more must we marvel at those, their descendants, who gave birth to a nation conceived in liberty and endowed with the capacity to raise it to honor in the world, and whose memory gives us this new national holiday in place of the old? That was no small achievement, for we are able to judge the dignity and worth of the new by the previously unsurpassed elevation of the old holiday whose place it assumed in our affections.
Are we not within our rights, then, to harp about our liberties? Once, in 1796, a sharp debate was set off in the House of Representatives over a resolution which proclaimed the American people "the freest and most enlightened, the happiest people on the earth." The opponents yielded the truth of the remark. They wondered, however, about the propriety of declaring it. Some said that it would be unseemly to remind others less fortunate of their pathetic situation. Thus were they almost casually mindful of the slaves, far and near, who have always been instructed by the noise of American debates. At that time, but twenty years removed from the Declaration of Independence, there was leisure to consider the human meaning of the advent of the United States in the world.
Now, at a remove of 207 years, our situation is altered. We do not habitually devote our leisure to reconsider the human meaning of the existence of the United States. Nor, even, do we often enough take the measure of that achievement against the genuine monuments of human excellence from the past and which alone are true rivals to it. At the pass to which we have come, we more usually cut our suits to the taste of something more generally and mysteriously called humanity-something ready-to-wear-instead of searching out human achievement at its best as that in which alone we should find human right as the model of our taste.
That is the reason these renewed celebrations hold for us a value higher than Americans have heretofore required. They are invitations to us to deploy our judgments on the side of an essential truth, which has the power to elevate our opinions beyond our inclinations. It is therefore especially troublesome to note that we need to pause, before soaring to the summits of self-congratulation, to ask of ourselves, how shall we ever repay so grand a debt?
We pay, first, by remembering. And this payment is rendered to posterity, for a people who will remember the architects of liberty and the morality of freedom will not fail to bequeath a legacy of virtue to their offspring.
We pay again in the coin of fame, duly rendered to those whose services merit and whose souls surely reap the harvest of that legitimate fruit of honest ambition. Should we ever fall in arrears on that debt, we may be certain that, while our creditors are merely stinted of richly deserved compensation, we the debtors would be in our turn forever barred from laying claim to it and, what is worse, impoverished in the means of acquiring it. The commerce of fame embellishes our lives as much as the lives of them whom we praise.
But we repay this great debt of ours, above all, when we become ourselves such men as they who left us this legacy.
When our thoughts may as habitually turn on the common good as theirs did, we will pay them in the coin they valued most highly. As they wished for us nothing so much as the preservation of our willingness to elevate and defend the claims of freedom, we can pay them never so well as when we succeed in defending an elevated opinion of America's place among men.
To elevate our opinion, we must succeed in educating ourselves with constant recourse to the genuine monuments of human excellence. For young and old, at home, at school, and at work, our task is to revere and master what is always and everywhere best. Any other aim of education would be a servile betrayal of the opportunity uniquely afforded to us.
To defend this opinion which we shall acquire only with great and honest labor, we must rededicate ourselves to the proposition that no life apart from the life of freedom is worthy of mankind. We will find strength in our mutual reliance on one another only to the extent that each finds in his fellows willing defenders of the life of freedom, of our life, however it may be situated in the world. We need to be able to think of one another as foxhole companions. As there is no suitable human alternative to the life founded in and dedicated to securing freedom, neither should there be among us praise of any opinion which would hazard that way of life, lest we betray the debt we owe.
Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was last to die. His legacy was the last of the Founders' to be touched by their heirs. His example in some ways befits the America we have become, better than that of any other Founder. Although he was the richest man in America at the time of the Revolution, Carroll as much needed to establish his civil rights as any other American. No one can say of him that he rebelled in order to secure long-established privileges, nor for light and transient reasons. The man and his property were totally exposed to what could easily have been the capricious will of a government to which he did not consent.
Carroll's story is that of a man who made his rights the excuse for his citizenship. He never claimed to find his rights in the official provisions of the law. He insisted that just law would respect him because he was human. Carroll emerged as the leading spokesman for the popular cause in Maryland in the era before the Revolution. As an essayist he forcefully argued the cause of the people's right of consent as the condition of legitimate government. Writing under the pen name "First Citizen," he made the citizenship of every Marylander a valuable commodity. He never stopped to reflect that his opponents, arguing against him, would attack him as not worthy to speak, because he was not a citizen at all. They reminded Carroll that, as a practicing Catholic, he was disallowed all political participation in Maryland.
So the man who emerged as the most forceful exponent of the rights of Maryland's citizens, under the name "First Citizen" was not a citizen recognized in law. That did not deter him. When Carroll spoke on behalf of the people, he was asserting not the citizenship of the law but that of nature and nature's God. He asserted the rights of mankind, that all men and women, rich and poor, are created equal. He vindicated the claims of humanity in his own person, just as America vindicates the claims of humanity in her own Constitution. When Carroll penned his signature to the Declaration of Independence, then and then only did that human citizen become an American citizen. Then only could he benefit by his human citizenship. In him we behold the old adage "Every man for himself" come to mean the same thing as that maxim "All for one, and one for all." Carroll vindicated the rights of all mankind-Catholic, Protestant, or Jew-and thereby made himself an American.
The way to us is clear. We repay in full our debt to Carroll and all the Founders only by going beyond the mere receipt of our citizenship from law. When we make ourselves Americans, vindicating the rights of all mankind whatever their race, asserting the claims of human citizenship as the proper and just lot of every American, we become one with the Founders, redeeming our debt to them and joining them as creditors to a new posterity.
In closing, I will call upon the spirit of our nation's aegis, George Washington, who alone among the Founders recognized and could recognize no debt to him which any of us should ever be able to repay, and who receives our tarnished coins not as fit payment for services rendered but as the pious devotions of believers. Washington knew, and said, that after him there would remain only the task for Americans continually to remake themselves American.
Accordingly, Washington reminded us how to go about this work. He showed how we should regard our constitutional order as adapted to the purpose. Washington maintained that the framework of government was only a device, whereby we should each and altogether assert the claims of our human citizenship. It was a necessary device, for without it we could turn only to superstitions and forces, even to preserve a pathetic claim to order and security. To attain more, to live well, to make of our citizenship a work worthy of the best men, we would need to operate within the framework of the Constitution which, he patiently instructed, "I presume now to assert that better may not still be devised."
May this day of celebration, then, be for all a day of return to that noble task through which we lay claim to the decent respect of mankind.