A fresh memory of old traditions
Fresh Memory of Old Traditions
John F. Kennedy, in "A Nation of Immigrants" notes the diverse waves of peoples who streamed to our shores right from the start. Yet for all the diversity, their was a common set of aspirations, and to an extent, a shared heritage. Tocqueville entused about the rising possibilities of middle class democracy. As Kennedy summarized Tocqueville, "This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacxious society that did not restrict their freedom of action."
John Jay, the man who was to become America's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was himself of French extraction, descended from refugees of religious persecution by the Church-State in the old world. Pleading for the adoption of the Constitution, he argued that Americans were not many peoples, but truly only one. Notwithstanding differences, there was an underlying unity.
The paradox is still with us -- diversity and unity. Not either, but both. Our poet Walt Whitman called these states "the amplest poem" and declared that we are not merely a nation, but a teeming Nation of nations. Respecting diversity, we also join together round a common flag, and reverence our shared traditions, and symbols.
What unites us? Often, the more specific we try to get, the greater our risk of falling into the pitfalls of particularity and exclusion. The Declaration of Independence has been called a symbolic gesture, written in language rife with "glittering generalities."
Tocqueville and Jay both touched on the shared language of English, the shared participation in the evolving tradition of Anglo-European rights and law, the common heritage of a biblical religious past, and of course we might also include the European feudal, medieval, and classical Roman and Greek roots at well.
The only true government must be self-government. If the people do not, as individuals, rule their own actions, the only alternative is authoritarianism of the kind our founders were intent on emerging from, the "Leviathan" of Thomas Hobbes, a kind of police state akin to totalitarianism.
James Madison note:
"We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not on the power of government...[but] upon the capacity of each and every one of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."
Erich Fromm in The Revolution of Hope wrote: "I submit that if people would truly accept the Ten Commandments or the Buddhist Eightfold Path as the effective principles to guide their lives, a dramatic change in our whole culture would take place."
Regarding the American founding, Cecil Roth wrote: "It was Hebrew mortar (to quote a famous phrase) that cemented the foundations of the Republic; and not without reason did the first seal it adopted depict the overthrow of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, with the motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God' . . . ." This seal was designed by Thomas Jefferson.
America's first frontiersman-president, Andrew Jackson, declared of the Bible that "that book .... is the rock on which our republic rests."
Franklin D. Roosevelt alluded to the Scriptural foundations of American democracy when in a 1935 broadcast message:
"We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic . . . where we have been truest and most consistent in obeying its precepts, we have attained the greatest measure of contentment and prosperity ..."