Sunday, April 1, 2012

What Is An American?

The idea was introduced to the American colonists by the Iroquois: "No man should allow another man to be his master." It grew and was nurtured by the demands on individual responsibility implicit in carving out a civilization from the wilderness. Even as the colonists swore fealty to the King of England, the idea remained a gnawing, festering, and dissonant incongruity in the American psyche. Finally, in 1776, it burst forth in a pyrotechnic starburst of blasphemy that startled and is still startling the world.

"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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,"

These words from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence could only have been perceived as incomparable arrogance by the Europeans of the time. These colonial upstarts were suggesting not only that they were equal to the aristocracy, but that governments could be "instituted" among men -- that they were not an incontrovertible feature of nature as they had always been. Furthermore, those governments instituted by the governed have no powers except those granted to them by the governed. These were inconceivable ideas in an era dominated by absolute monarchies. The notion that the subjects could dictate to the recipients of the divine right to govern was anathema. But there was more.

"... 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,... "

So the People could not only make governments, they could destroy them and replace them if they so chose. A government was not something you must submit to, but an entity you could sculpt to suit your own particular needs. This was an extremely revolutionary idea in 1776. Then, to add insult to injury, the Americans actually put these radical heresies into practice.

"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."

Again, "We the People... do ordain and establish this constitution... ," not the aristocrats like Alexander Hamilton who inhabited America at the time, but the rabble -- the people. And that government was not created to rule them but to provide for their common defense and general welfare. The American government was to be a servant of the common people, appointed by them to do their bidding.

The Constitution of the United States is not only the birth certificate of America, it is the defining document of what it means to be an American. The Constitution says that the government belongs to us. We made it and we control it. It does not control us. And if it tries to, we have the right and, under the Second Article of the Bill of Rights, the means to abolish it.

An American believes in what might be called bottom up government. He rejects the idea that top down government is a manifestation of the natural order of things. To an American, sovereignty resides in the individual and a government is nothing more than a tool created by a group of individuals to serve their common needs. Nor are the powers of that government absolute; they are vested in it by the People, and the People may, at their discretion, modify or revoke those powers as they see fit. Furthermore, the people whom Americans allow to operate their government are not free agents, but are democratically elected servants of the People subject to recall and to criminal prosecution.

This introduces an awesome (and to some frightening) concept. You alone are responsible for your wellbeing and for your mistakes. But you are also responsible for your success! Nobody but you did it to you, and nobody but you can do it for you. This mind set, unique to America, has been responsible for making Americans the richest people in the world. Though we comprise only a fifth of the world's population, we own half the private automobiles in the world, we waste more food than many countries consume, and we take potable tap water for granted.