government is built by the citizens

Our Founding Fathers Principles

Our Founding Fathers identified a certain set of principles that have always been the responsibility of the citizens to implement. Our predecessors have made some progress toward clarifying and making these principles a part of our societal fabric, but much remains to be done by each of us to continue our forward progress.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reflect the society conceived by our Founding Fathers. This was not a continuation of the European societies from which they fled. It was a definition of a new form of governance and social norms. It requires that every citizen participates in the governance. This new way of governing a nation did not grow out of a set of ideas that everyone agreed to but they were built on a foundation of political disagreements, writings in newspapers arguing differing opinions, and oral debates. Americans came from a widely diverse background. The new ideal society was built on principles like:

  • All men are created equal
  • All men have certain inalienable rights
  • Life
  • Liberty
  • Pursuit of happiness
  • The right to free speech

Not everyone believed that we as a nation could accomplish and maintain this union. Alexander Hamilton asked if the people of the new country would be able to establish and maintain good government by making thoughtful choices throughout their participation. Or would accident, violence, deceit, and prejudice drive their destiny? Could the government, in turn, support people’s efforts to govern themselves fairly? (From a book by Jill Lepore- These Truths a history of the United States.)

Hamilton’s questions are important ones for all of us to consider. The Founding Fathers identified lofty principles for our form of government and the new social order, such as Equality, Justice, and Freedom of Speech, among others. These concepts are not simple, their meanings are as numerous as the people within the nation, and finding a common meaning or set of meanings is a challenge for all of us.

One thing is clear though, if the citizens don’t become involved we will never reach these goals. We must have dialogue and an exchange of ideas, rather than name-calling and divisiveness. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were built on a foundation of civil discourse and disagreement. We must return to this civil discourse if our Democracy is to survive. Three of the major foundational principles of our society today that require renewed discourse are equality, voting rights, and freedom of speech.

Joseph Chan on Unsplash- CItizens must speak OUT!

Equality is a principle that needs citizen attention to make it happen.

Equality seems like a simple idea. We have been taught from the first grade that 1 equals 1 and 1+2 equals 3. So our mind has extrapolated from those lessons and imagines that equal or equality means equal in all aspects. But in fact, equality isn’t that simple. 

Equality is a utopian ideal that was important to the founding fathers for this new experiment in governing that they envisioned. But equality is extremely hard to understand and apply in reality, especially when we apply it to people. We can be equal in one thin aspect of society and unequal in others. We could be equal in the sense that each citizen has the right to vote and impediments are not placed in any citizen’s path when exercising this right. If we were equal in all aspects then we would be identical and interchangeable in the eyes of the government. We have improved equality in many aspects of society but we have a long way to go to reach equality in many others, but it is our responsibility as citizens to provide continuous improvement in the implementation of these principles:

  • right to vote
  • equal treatment in the eyes of justice
  • equal treatment by our lawmakers
  • equal treatment in the eyes of our neighbors
  • equal opportunities to reach economic equity with our neighbors
  • equal access to capital market

We can never reach equality, no matter how you define it without citizen discourse. Not by creating a fragmented society. It will only happen when we come to some understanding of what equality really means under our form of government.

Voting Rights are a principle part of the fabric of America

Let’s use voting rights as another example of a principle that requires continuous citizen scrutiny and protection. The common phrase we use is “one person-one vote.” That is not where we started nor where we are today. It was not until 1866 that the definition of citizen existed according to Jill Lepore in her book These Truths: a history of the United States. Eventually, the women got the right to vote- a major step to equality. But it wasn’t until 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act that the concept of one-person-one-vote was codified. This law states that each citizen in the United States is granted the equal right to vote. But the reality is still much different.

The implementation of this simple concept has so far escaped reality. States have put in specific requirements for voters that make it difficult or impossible for people of color, lower economic status or homelessness to exercise their right to vote. Requiring people to have a driver’s license, a government-issued picture id, and a home address are all techniques that have been used in the past. For this election, we have seen some new barriers added- removal of post boxes to make it more difficult for people living in certain neighborhoods to mail in their ballot. The claim that mail-in ballots are subject to fraud. The amount of time needed to count the ballots will be extremely long. Another new method is to limit the number of voting stations so the lines become extremely long and people are being asked to wait for 6-8 hours to cast their ballot.

As citizens, we need to observe, speak up, and do everything in our power to ensure one person-one vote. 

To suppress the vote is to make a mockery of democracy. And those who do so are essentially acknowledging that their policies are unpopular. If you can’t convince a majority of voters that your ideas are worthy, you try to limit the pool of voters. This reveals a certain irony: Many who are most vocal in championing a free, open, and dynamic economy are the same political factions that suppress these principles when it comes to the currency of ideas.”

Dan Rather, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism

Freedom of Speech

The third principle we are going to look at is in the First Amendment to the Constitution. This gives people the right to free speech. This is another area where citizen involvement and understanding of the principle is essential for our society to move forward. Free Speech taken to its extreme could be interpreted to mean a person could say anything they wanted to at any time. It could mean that you are entitled to incite a riot, yell fire, or other statements that would cause people to panic and get hurt.  

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued guidance on the meaning and limits of free speech. He was a great defender of first amendment rights. However, Holmes wrote some of the most significant free speech decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court. In the process, he attempted to identify the fine line between protected and unprotected speech with his clear and present danger test, in which he used the now-classic example of an individual falsely shouting “Fire” in a theater as an example of speech that was “substantively evil.” This kind of speech was deemed not protected under the First Amendment.

This leads to the white supremacist incident in Charlottesville this year. Where they “exercised their version of “free speech” and incited a riot that resulted in several deaths. All citizens should be involved in discussions about this incident.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Citizenship

As citizens, we cannot sit quietly by and watch these incidents on the news. We are obligated by the principles of our founding fathers to act. As we look back over our history we see many incidents that are appalling:

  • The murder of George Floyd
  • Congress recessing and leaving the citizens without unemployment check extension
  • The use of military force to clear a path so the President could have a photo opportunity

As citizens, we have an obligation to embrace our founding fathers’ principles and to move our country forward. We must:

  • Speak truth to Power
  • Write to congress and your local government until they do the right thing
  • Participate in local groups to have a dialogue to break down the tribal barriers of us vs them, racism and lack of equal opportunity to education
  • Create Opportunities for the community to get involved in removing the barriers to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all
  • Ensure that our fellow citizens are treated fairly
  • Ensure that each citizen is able to Vote
  • Work to address social inequality because we are one people.

Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part. and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.     

Robert A. Heinlein

Citizen involvement in debates, discussions, letter-writing campaigns, and other legal protests are necessary to continue to move our society toward the principles established by our founding fathers. We cannot be silent, uninformed, or lack thoughtfulness when we choose our leaders and protect the rights of our fellow citizens. We must get involved to protect democracy.