June 15, 2024

Embracing the founders’ dream for America

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Co-Publisher, Grant County Herald

“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,” the inspiring words of the words of the Declaration of Independence signed July 4, 1776, read.

“E Pluribus Unum” is the Latin phrase meaning “Out of Many, One.” It became America’s motto in 1782. It is on the Great Seal of the United States and on some of our currency. These words highlighted America’s future as a nation of immigrants whose combined talents and toil would make it the greatest nation on Earth.

They are reinforced in the opening words of the U.S. Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Only through centuries of suffering and injustice have the words of our founding documents painfully, and far too slowly, expanded to include all Americans. But today, these high aspirations of the nation’s founders are under stress. There are those who would erode the words of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and our nation’s motto. They would drag us away from its evolution toward a more perfect union to one that denies rights. 

The words of the Declaration provide some today with their justifications for insurrection as they seek to create a nation adhering to their beliefs rather than one made up of an inclusive society. They corrupt its words to suit self-serving ends rather than common rights based on the common good cherished by the founders. They dismiss its words of unity.

“That to secure these rights,” the words of the Declaration read, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Those frightened by a more diverse America use these words written about an oppressive British monarchy to justify militant action against their own government, from school boards to Congress.

They pursue their “safety and happiness,” not that of all citizens. The “more perfect union” they see is limited to their vision. If our founders had followed such a path, we would not be the nation we are today.

“…when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in his final speech before the Constitutional Convention.

Under George Washington’s careful presiding oversight along with the genius of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, the representatives of the 13 states crafted the nation’s founding documents. They fought vigorously but reached a compromise.

Pursuing our rights should be done with respect of the rights of others. At the core of our pursuit of rights should be the basic tenet our founders consistently relied on in drafting the Constitution and Bill of Rights – the public good. On the National Archives Founders Online website, a search of “public good” comes up more than 1,400 times.

In the fall of 1788, Madison wrote that one of the “fundamental maxims of free Government” would be “a good ground for an appeal to the sense of community” against potential oppression and would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”

Community implies working toward the common good. To do this we need to listen to one another with respect and open ourselves to information that can expand our understanding – even when it goes against our closely-held political and cultural beliefs. 

Mark Shields was a respected observer of politics in America. The liberal, “genial” writer and commentator died this past week at the age of 85. He probably was most well-known by those who watched him as part of the “PBS NewsHour” program’s Friday assessment of the week’s news sitting across from a conservative journalist.

In a story about Shield’s approach to politics, “The Washington Post” quotes him as urging people to remember that “in every discussion the person on the other side probably loves their country as much as you love our country; that they care about their children’s and grandchildren’s future as much as you do; that they treasure the truth as much as you do; and that you don’t demonize somebody on the other side.” 

While passionate about his beliefs, he treated his ideological opponents with respect. “Mark Shields had a magical combination of talents: an unsurpassed knowledge of politics and a passion, joy, and irrepressible humor that shone through in all his work,” long-time friend and PBS NewsHour host” Judy Woodruff said in a statement.

Shields stressed civility and open-mindedness were essential to communication and learning. We sorely lack both today. The compassion permeating his political discussions earned him and his conservative counterpart on the “NewsHour” David Brooks the Allegheny College “civility in public life” award in 2012.

As he left Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Franklin was asked, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

 “A republic, if you can keep it,” he responded. 

In creating a conversation that is civil and at the same time challenges our thinking, we believe the community newspapers play an essential role in creating goals for the common good. In small towns, we work together to get things done.

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