Our national purpose, and values, are in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In 1776 the Declaration founders asserted their revolutionary intention to break free from British tyranny. They also asserted that we are all born with “unalienable Rights…among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, though those rights originally were only for White men of property. The Declaration founders also declared the “Right of the People…to institute new Government…in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”. The Declaration was a commitment to create a nation with equal rights for all. The Constitution then codified and structured those rights for the government and society.
The framers made a good start in drafting a Constitution with a purpose. Many framers wanted to improve on this original draft of the Constitution as it did not spell out the full meaning of equality of rights, which the Declaration had asserted. To remedy this omission the convention then added the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, to expand on equality of rights of citizens. Even then those rights did not extend to every person.
Nonetheless, the framers had aspired beyond their own class, caste, gender and race constraints to acknowledge that the people should always be free to make “a more perfect union”. The framers wanted the continual improvement of their founding ideal future.
The history of our country, subsequent to the founding documents, has been the struggle through civil war...
social movements and amendments to the Constitution...
to establish that more people actually did have the unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
The ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution inspired Americans to create a value based democratic republic. At the nation’s start, there were two competing visions. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of independent farmers and craftsmen, with a small central government mainly for defense. Alexander Hamilton envisioned an industrial America with factories, banks, and a strong central government for national development.
At the start of the 19th century, the majority of Americans fit the Jeffersonian vision. When he visited America in 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville described decentralized democratic communities where independent citizens cooperated, not because of rules and regulations, but because of “habits of the heart”.
As the 19th century progressed in the antebellum country, the northern states developed the Hamiltonian industrial vision, while in the South, state governments were controlled by slave owners of large plantations. Competing free vs. slave visions clashed and led to the Civil War. Continually working to shape public attitudes and reaffirm the values of the Declaration before and during the war, Abraham Lincoln, affirmed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for blacks as well as whites. Lincoln’s vision was affirmed in the 13th , 14th and 15th amendments amendments to the Constitution, which have been called the Second American Revolution.
After the Civil War, industrial growth benefited entrepreneurs who tried to control both markets and government. Theodore Roosevelt fought for a more egalitarian America, but after World War I, big business came back. The great depression brought Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House to preserve the economy and fight for the common people. He described a vision of Americans enjoying four freedoms that expanded the rights expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This vision was only partly realized. Many Americans still suffer from want and fear of an uncertain future.
In the post-Civil War period, the promise of the Declaration was still unfulfilled for blacks and women. The 19th amendment gave women the vote and Civil Rights legislation in the 60’s protected black rights. But struggles by blacks and women for equality continue, joined by the movement for the rights of Americans with different sexual orientations.
Since the 1980s, information technology and globalization have transformed our economy. Some Americans have become rich and most others have fallen behind. Now in an age of growing inequality and fears caused by terrorism, climate danger, pandemic and social conflict, there is no shared vision of the future.
Politicians offer policies that are like medication to cure fears of the future, but these policies only address symptoms. The cure requires a vision for America, based on the values of the Declaration and the Constitution, in the new reality that is radically different from anything imagined by Jefferson or Hamilton.