Academic journal article Social Education

An Idea Called America

Academic journal article Social Education

An Idea Called America

Article excerpt

Democracy degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.

--Thomas Jefferson (1782, Notes on the State of Virginia)

Our citizenship is based on an idea we call America. America evolved out of the principles of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, suggesting that individuals could govern themselves and that people were "endowed" with "unalienable rights" such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these principles, Americans would continue to work on forming a more perfect Union, by establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing liberty into the future. Thus, "U.S. citizenship" means embracing these principles, which when taken together, we call America.

Further, we believe that the idea of America must be sustained through debate. This view of our citizenship begs three central questions:

1. How does debate sustain and energize an idea called America?

2. What is the nature of such a powerful idea?

3. How should the debate or argument be framed?

To begin with, the debate or argument is over whether or not a dynamic and diverse republic can be developed and sustained on a grand scale. At a deeper level, however, the debate, launched at the time of the American Revolution, and carried into the present by citizens' civic discourse is over four sets of value tensions. These tensions encompass the fundamental idea of America: (1)

* Law vs. Ethics

* Private Wealth vs. Common Wealth

* Freedom vs. Equality

* Unity vs. Diversity

While each value set is inherently in conflict, there also is a vital synergy between them. For example, private wealth is never fully realized, nor secure, without a robust common wealth. Likewise, our freedom is impoverished if not accompanied by a sense of equality that provides a moral infrastructure in which to encase that freedom. Similarly, our laws are never good unless guided by a higher conscience. And the quest for cultural unity is inconsistent with democracy if it does not also recognize the rich diversity of our increasingly pluralistic society. Thus, a critical capacity of the democratic mind is the ability to embrace contradictory ideas. Without such ability we undermine the democratic principles at the core of our nation. Understanding, reconciling, and balancing these values are essential processes of democracy.

Law and Ethics

Laws that help us govern and ethical principles that guide behavior are not always in harmony. But the dissonance and tension can lead to change, a better legal system, and a good society. The consequences hinge on how intellectually prepared we are to address such paradoxes. Important political documents and statements illustrate this discord.

The Declaration of Independence called on Americans to rise above corrupt laws and honor the moral authority residing within them, "the Powers of the Earth ... and of Nature's God." The founders, products of the Enlightenment, believed that the people had been vested with the power of reason, respect for the individual, ethical integrity, and discretion in government. (2)

In his debates that led up to the Civil War, Lincoln invoked a higher principle that superseded the then-law of the land. And a century later, in the 1960s, another great American statesman, Martin Luther King, Jr., made a similar argument during the civil rights movement. (3)

If law and ethics are not intentionally balanced, a great deal of mischief can be perpetrated either in the name of the law or in the name of God. Stubbornly holding to a "higher principle" or to "the law" can stall the progress of the nation. That is why statutory law and "higher law" must be in tension. Without this debate the fabric of our democracy is weakened. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.