It all started with The National Creed.
We celebrate our Independence Day on the day we signed our Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.
This document did not create the government of the United States of America; that would happen on September 17th, 1787, 11 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, on a day that is seldom noted by Americans except as a curious footnote.
This document does not celebrate the winning of any wars; the American Revolutionary War ended with the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783, on another date seldom noted by Americans except by historians. And that document did not actually end hostilities between the United States and Great Britain; we would go on just a few decades later to fight another war that ended in 1815, with the Treaty of Ghent signed in December 24, 1814–but (unaware of technical peace) the final battles were fought in New Orleans in January of 1815.
This document does not celebrate the first country which formally recognized the United States of America as a sovereign nation–the one nation on Earth which the United States has its longest standing international relationship, formulated with the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed between the United States in July and Sultan Muhammad III of Morocco.
Nor does it celebrate our friendship with our first essential ally, France, which supplied the United States with the weapons and supplies necessary to defeat Great Britain. Nor does it celebrate the informal friendly relationship we’ve had with the Netherlands, a country which has cultural ties with the U.S. since before New York was known as New Amsterdam.
No; we celebrate the signing of a document which has, over the years, defined our National Creed: the authoritative formulation of the core beliefs which define the United States of America.
Most nations on Earth are essentially tribal in nature; they represent a single people, a geographic extent over which these people have control, and the defenses they use to protect their borders from other people who are not like them.
Many nations have a ruling people and a ruling culture which then subjugates other related tribes of people who then periodically agitate for independence from the dominant tribe. Just look at the United Kingdom, its relationship to Ireland, and the agitation by the Welsh and the Scottish to declare their own independence from the British.
Or look at the Kurds who struggle against the Turks (in the North) and the Iraqis (in the South).
Or look at the Basque national movement seeking to carve out its own country between Spain and France.
Or look at de-facto Zapatista independence in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
The United States often thinks of itself as a single people as well: we call ourselves Americans and we believe ourselves a single people. But any road trip through the United States makes plain the lie of this assertion, just as anyone listening very carefully to the heated rhetoric of our politics–a heated rhetoric which, despite modern assertions to the country, has been heated pretty much since the ink dried on our original Articles of Confederation, signed on July 12th on a date seldom noted except by historians, and ratified on November 15h to go into effect on March 1 of 1781–all dates rarely noted by Americans.
(We often complain loudly about the lack of decorum in U.S. politics today, but we forget the debate over the admission of Kansas on the evening of February 5th, 1858, which devolved into a full-on brawl, with Galusha Grow (R-PA) and Laurence Keitt (D-SC) exchanging insults–then blows. When Representative Keitt dismissed Representative Grow as a “black Republican puppy”, Grow responded “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me,” leading Keitt to grab Grow by the throat. The resulting brawl involved fifty representatives, ending only when a missed punch knocked the hairpiece off Representative Barksdale (D-MS), embarassing him, and causing the rest of the combatants to fall into laughter.)
In fact, one could say that the United States of America is the first–and potentially the only–nation on Earth not founded by a tribal people claiming territory, nor by a desire by national organizations to impose a Westphalian order on otherwise borderless territories, nor by the old colonial carving up of units of governance–but by a National Creed.
A creed which is similar to the religious creed or confession of Christianity (the Nicene Creed, beginning “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”), or the Islamic shahada or testimony: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is God’s messenger.”
Our National Creed starts with the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence, and this statement of Faith is the most well known part of that document. We often forget that the bulk of the Declaration of Independence is actually a list of grievances against the King of Great Britain, a statement of intent to dissolve our relationship, and a pledge to defend ourselves with our lives. Instead, we only remember the Creed.
And, I assert, it is not where you are born which defines if you are an American. It is not the color of your skin, your system of religious belief, or your cultural background which defines your Americanness.
What makes you an American is your belief in our Creed.
And if I could, I would change the laws for immigrating into our country–reducing the requirements of citizenship to a simple background check and a pledge of faith, to honor and study our National Creed and to hold that Creed in your heart. A process that should take all of five minutes to someone who is sincere in their faith in our nation.
Our national creed begins:
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.
This line, one of the best known sentences in the English language, defines America.
It defines the moral standard for which the United States should strive. We may not reach the standard we have set for ourselves; certainly our history with slavery and our relationship with Native Americans, as well as today’s debates over immigration or the fights between the Left and the Right, demonstrate our imperfection.
But all good moral standards establish a perfect ideal by which all of us can strive. Anything lesser would simply encourage moral laziness.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
In prior, similar declarations, such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights or the Massachusetts Constitution, slightly different wording has been used. The Virginia Declaration of Rights states: “[A]ll men are by nature equally free and independent”; Massachusetts Constitution states: “All men are born free and equal…”.
It is the nature of Man which is being asserted–and that nature is constant and self-evident. By the nature of our birth, we are created equal–and that equality is self-evident: an “obvious” fundamental Truth.
… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …
The notion of an unalienable Right differentiates itself from the notion of a legal right.
Legal rights are rights which are bestowed onto a person by a legal system, and as such they can be modified, restrained or repealed by the same legal system.
An unalienable Right–also known as a natural right, are those rights which exist independent of laws or customs of any particular government–and in fact can exist when there is no government at all. These are so-called “negative rights” in that they require inaction on the part of our fellow men: all a natural right requires of us is respect for each other.
The very notion of a natural right goes back to classical Greek philosophy, and appears in the writings of Cicero. Our Founding Father’s notions of an unalienable Right more directly traces to the English philosopher John Locke, whose own formulation of natural rights inform the next section of our National Creed:
… that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
For you to enjoy your life and liberty, it requires nothing from me but to respect your boundaries. Just as your pursuit of Happiness–a particular phrasing which has a specific meaning to our Founding Fathers–requires nothing from me beyond respecting who you are, the work you do, the things you make, and the self-expression you engage in.
John Locke’s own formulation of the three fundamental and unalienable rights–which hint at the particular meaning of what they meant by the “pursuit of Happiness” was “life, liberty, and estate (or property)”.
That is, the pursuit of happiness is not just the pursuit of mindless amusement.
It is deeply rooted in the notion of one’s right to work hard, to establish a home, to do and make things which help you support your family. It is deeply rooted in the freedom one has to create things that others may find useful, and exchange those for things one needs–such as the ability of a candle maker to make candles and exchange them for eggs from a neighbor.
And, in point of fact, Locke and his contemporary, Adam Smith (who wrote “Wealth of Nations”) saw economic activity as an extension of moral theory, something that is made very clear when one realizes Smith’s book “Wealth of Nations” was the sequel to his earlier–and, unfortunately, lesser-known work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
The administration of the great system of the universe … the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country…. But though we are … endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has been entrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them.
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.
As a footnote, it is a shame that people today forgot Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is, in fact, the Hand of God.
To continue with our creed:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
There is, in our National Creed, no “divine right of Kings,” no royal class, no inherited powers. The power of government does not flow through a central King or Emperor through his vassals and lords and royal families, to the people being governed.
Instead, power flows from the People.
Ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. And governments, made legitimate as expressions of divine will, are legitimized not by Kings explaining God’s divine plan to the rest of us. They are legitimized by the essential nature of Man–God’s creation on Earth–and by our consent to government that protects those inherent rights.
This Social Contract theory of government again stems from the writings of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that governments are essentially social compacts created to guarantee our fundamental and natural rights to Life, Liberty and Property–with “Property” understood to be the results of our hard work and the things we obtain to support our families.
And they stem from a belief that the best way to guarantee these rights was a democratic form of government–one which everyone has a voice, even if it is only to elect a representative, to help secure and protect our natural rights.
It is a shame that the social contract theory of government has fallen out of favor, in part because it is so poorly understood. Just as it is a shame that so many modern philosophers (such as Marxists and Utilitarians) believe they can improve upon this system by “bettering mankind”–as if, with the right word or the right system of laws they can improve upon our God-given nature.
As if Mankind, created in the image of God, can be improved and made better than God.
Our National Creed is, in fact, a universal declaration, and not just a declaration specific to the United States. It may have started as such–but if you believe (as I do) in the natural right of Man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of those comforts through hard work that allow you to marry and raise a family in relative happiness is a universal statement, then there is no reason why the United States must be the only nation on Earth where this humanitarian vision of mankind is promulgated.
Just as I believe the patriotism we show for our country should not be based on a tribal allegiance to land and culture, but to a nearly spiritual belief in the freedom of Man, a freedom derived from our essential God-given nature.
It certainly is not lost to me that because of our essential beliefs, we are one of the only nations on Earth who, today, floats the most overwhelmingly powerful Navies in the world–not to conquer foreign lands, but to secure the seas so anyone from anywhere can sail between ports of call in relative freedom. It is not lost on me that in our invasions of countries around the world, we’ve struggled hard to figure out ways to leave the nations we’ve conquered, not as subjugated territories of the United States, but as free and independent nations who honor the same founding principles we do. (In fact, one could suggest that our naivety in our belief has left us terrible managers of the nations we’ve occupied, and ironically leaving a trail of wreckage and ruin when we’ve wanted nothing more than peace and prosperity.)
We are the last standing Hyperpower on Earth–capable of invading and holding territory anywhere in the world–and what do we want as a nation? Better tourist stops and to trade with people of other countries and perhaps a chance to sample the food and beer.
I think this makes other nations extremely suspicious of the United States.
Because at the subconscious level, all the United States wants to do is promulgate our National Creed in the same way a quiet believer in Christ wants to spread the Good News.
Certainly other countries have rallied against our “cultural imperialism”; just witness the laws in France which attempt to censor American-made films. Look at the complaints in China about the movie “Kung Fu Panda.” Or witness the people around the world complaining about McDonalds or Pepsi or Levi jeans. Or just look at the Islamic terrorists who see the United States as the greatest enemy to the establishment of a world-wide calliphate, not because we are necessarily the strongest immediate military threat, but because we represent the strongest ideological threat.
And certainly other countries–even our allies–are suspicious of the United States because they cannot conceive of the possibility that our end-goal is not world domination, but to become a small and inconsequential nation in a world that knows nothing but freedom, and the right of everyone everywhere to freedom of choice, and to pursue life, liberty and happiness as they see fit.
So today we celebrate our National Creed.
It seems appropriate to me that we would celebrate this day with Chinese fireworks and German hot dogs and Dutch apple pie.
But I also believe it is a good time to renew our civic faith, to remember why we celebrate July 4th. To remember that we celebrate our belief in the equality of man, and for everyone’s freedom of choice to find a deeper meaning in their own lives as they strive for their own fullest potential.