It’s not the air we breathe nor merely the place on the planet we inhabit. It’s more attitude than latitude or longitude. For well over two centuries, the simplest of foundational concepts made America and those who voluntarily came to our shores decidedly different. None who came were required to conform, but instead, all who came were simply free to choose. What a radical idea. What a world-changing paradigm.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French aristocrat, turned political philosopher and historian, and Milton Friedman, 20th century Nobel Prize-winning economist, both understood what made America great. Although they expressed it differently and in different eras, both men understood America’s specialness. Americans were simply free to choose, free to choose what they would do with their lives, consistent with the new nation’s founding fundamental law, its Constitution.
America, the world’s only place where men and women could speak as they chose, pray as they chose, believe as they chose, earn as they chose, and participate in the nation’s political life as they chose. Tocqueville and Friedman understood the powerful meaning of Land of the Free, even though some men and women were undoubtedly much freer than others.
Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith also understood. In his remarkable Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Smith wrote of what America represented even before the British colony had won its independence. Listen to him, “From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attorneys they are become (sic) statesmen and legislators and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which they flatter themselves, will become and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.”
Tocqueville, in 1828, observing and literally feeling the powerful energy of these new Americans making a living any way their skill and determination allowed them to, and constantly banding together to solve common community problems, described the phenomenon, “like nothing I have ever seen before.”
We were a vast new nation rich in natural resources and far from the conflicts, monarchs, and national blood-letting that characterized the lands from which we came. As German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck observed a century-and-a-half ago, “The Americans are a very lucky people. They’re bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors and to the east and west by fish.”
But nothing drove America so quickly to world preeminence more than it being, from its inception, a land in which the people were simply free to choose. The first manifestation of that freedom was the process that produced the American Constitution; that parchment conceived by a collective of brilliant, forward-thinking men who pondered and debated and gave us a Republic that has endured for nearly two-and-a-half centuries—that document that has, and may yet continue to stand the test of time.
In America, it is our Constitution to which our highest civilian and military officials swear allegiance, and not to a political party, not to an office, and above all, never, but never, to an individual. In America, we are free to choose our path forward consistent with that remarkable document. What we, as a nation, choose to do with that individual freedom will determine just how great we will, or will not, continue to be.
We as a nation will, ultimately, pursue the call of our worst instincts or, as Abraham Lincoln pled in his inaugural speech in 1861 that “we may be touched, by the better angels of our nature.” Barely three years earlier, Lincoln had warned the nation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Indeed, a warning as relevant today as it was 163 years ago.
In America, no one has ever been born into power. No one. Americans born in poverty have risen to the pinnacles of power, and when they had it all, they relinquished it peacefully and proudly because that was, and thankfully still is, the American way. We forget how revolutionary that peaceful hand-off of power was, and in many parts of the world still is, and how vulnerable it has, on recent occasion, been even here in America.
America was the first nation in the world in which no accused person has ever had to prostrate himself or herself before the power of the state. In America, the burden of proof falls upon the state’s shoulders as the accuser, never upon the shoulders of the citizen as the accused. The presumption of innocence, which we take for granted was, and is, utterly revolutionary in many parts of the world.
In America, we send our Representatives to Congress to use their best judgment on our behalf. We send wise men and women (theoretically) to represent us because we’ve put faith in their solid judgment rather than trust in their absolute obedience to their constituents’ strong opinions. America is at its best when its leaders carefully promote unity around just causes rather than plot division and dissension around prevailing uncertainty or controversy.
George Washington feared the inevitable rise of political parties because he knew, correctly, they would inevitably promote party over principle. In 1947, a young Democrat, John Kennedy, and, twenty years later, a young Republican, Larry Hogan (Maryland Governor’s father), both campaigned under the same banner, “Sometimes party loyalty demands too much.”
Perhaps, Lincoln said it best after all. America’s future greatness will not be determined by a political party or a political figure, but rather by the people’s collective will to follow the better angels of their nature.
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