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The Founding Fathers and their heirs wanted to establish and maintain a prosperous republic, yet they welcomed limitations on prosperity as much as they had welcomed restraints on power. This healthy respect for limits offers a way to recover the political and moral realism that contemporary Americans have lost.
Somewhere I recall reading the poet Randall Jarrell’s trenchant observation, made during the 1950s, to the effect that were George Washington to appear in the twentieth century, he would be afraid of the traffic and twentieth-century Americans would be afraid of him. In both instances that fear, I suspect, would have arisen from unfamiliarity and misunderstanding, though perhaps in Washington’s case, a dose of old-fashioned common sense might also have prevailed.
Washington’s generation, and the two or three that immediately followed it, envisioned a country that was very different from what the United States has become. Their hope was not for the United States to be the most powerful nation on earth. They did not, of course, go to the other extreme, seeking to withdraw from international affairs and lapsing into isolation, and they never doubted the wisdom, as Thomas Jefferson said, of showing “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” At the same time, declared John Quincy Adams in his Fourth of July oration, delivered in 1821, the United States should not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
This moderation and prudence in foreign affairs rested on the assumption that the Declaration of Independence was unique in the annals of history, and that the events which took place in America in July of 1776 could not be repeated in other times and other places. A century later, many Americans were changing their minds. They believed not only that what happened in America could, but that it also must, be imitated—that, in fact, it was the mission of the United States to spread its institutions, culture, and values throughout the world. The future of humanity depended on it.
The Founding Fathers and their heirs also wanted to establish and maintain a prosperous republic. Yet, they welcomed limitations on prosperity as much as they had welcomed restraints on power. They did not desire, nor even could they have imagined, a people animated solely by the quest for wealth. If the United States was not to be the most powerful nation on earth, neither was it to be the most affluent. In their judgment, riches were not synonymous either with freedom or virtue. If anything, the opposite was more likely to be true. Abundance occasioned luxury, decadence, and vice. Given their sage understanding of human nature, could members of the founding generation have anticipated that opulence would not only produce an improved standard of living but also bring a significant increase in unhappiness, anxiety, and despair? In answer to that question, the rising suicide rate speaks volumes.
More than 240 years removed from the Declaration of Independence, many Americans on this day of remembrance and commemoration will entertain fantasies of returning to a more uncomplicated and auspicious past that never existed. Although understandable, especially among men and women who have long felt themselves left out and left behind, who justifiably see themselves more often as the victims than the beneficiaries of progress, this sentimental reverie forecloses any hope of undertaking a measured and realistic evaluation of American problems and prospects.
As a consequence, Americans remain ensnared in a confused, tedious, and inconclusive debate about the character, meaning, and future of national life, all the while vacillating between suspicion and contempt, cynicism and sincerity, resentment and intolerance. None of these perspectives acknowledges the grateful recognition of the Founding Fathers that life is a gift from God, not an affront to human desires. Reaffirming both folk wisdom and Christian orthodoxy, a healthy respect for limits, woven into the fabric of the Republic from the beginning, offers a way to recover the political and moral realism that contemporary Americans have lost.
This essay first appeared here in July 2018.
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