We’re reposting this piece in response to President Trump’s recent claim that he wields “total authority” in his role: “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be.” This specious claim was refuted almost immediately by the people you expect to see on TV–governors, Washington politicians, political experts, and academics.
But we sometimes fear that the average American begins to believe it–that a poisonous seed is planted in the American mind that in times of crisis, you need a dictator to force everyone to do the right thing, to take control and ensure that no one games the system. It’s a belief that begins as “you need might to do right” but, as human history teaches us, quickly and inevitably ends up as “might makes right.” Think of the cliche about Mussolini: he was a fascist, but the people loved him because “he made the trains run on time.”
When there’s so much friction and factionalism in Congress, people begin to yearn for a bulldozer to clear it all away, a Harry Truman-style “the buck stops here” leader who will tell people what to do, force them to do it, take credit or blame, and just get things moving again.
That’s the inherent problem in the general definition of leadership: that it’s an all-powerful person giving orders to obedient followers. It’s implied that the power is accompanied by wisdom.
But real leadership, as our Founders set us up to one day achieve, is not a Great Leader with an infallible Vision telling everyone else how to follow them. It’s a person who wants to make change mobilizing the talents and energy of other people to work with them to make change happen. It’s everyone sharing their ideas and everyone working equally hard to experiment, take chances, fail, learn, and try again. Incremental change, not Sweeping Edicts and Commands.
We don’t need a dictator. We have a government. It’s our government that makes Americans free. Unconvinced? It’s not surprising, after decades of “government is the problem” politicking. But read on, and we hope you are persuaded. That’s the incremental work we do here at the HP.
Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, has come to the conclusion that the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps in all American documentary history, is not what we think it is.
“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 among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That’s the way we learn it. But Allen has convincing evidence that in the original document there was no period after “happiness”, which means that first line should read like this:
“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 among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In their regular waves of anti-government passion, which recur throughout our history, Americans often claim that the federal government in Washington interferes with our “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, and even that the federal government—or the bare concept of having a federal government—is at odds with Americans being able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. But if the Declaration’s famous line has no period (as Allen seems to prove), then the only way Americans can pursue those rights given by God to all people is if they institute a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.
This is how we have always seen it at the HP: what makes America great is not, as is so often suggested, “our freedoms”. It is the fair, representative, democratic government that makes those freedoms possible, that makes preserving those freedoms its first priority and understands them as its reason for being. Without a fair and free government, we cannot long maintain any national, political, or individual freedoms we currently possess. In our posts “What are the freedoms we have as Americans?” parts 1 and 2, we put it this way:
“Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.
Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.
Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.
National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.”
The idea that the Founders did not want us to have a strong government is ludicrous. Their whole aim in breaking away from Great Britain was to create a new kind of government—the government was the point, the goal, the prize, the crowning achievement of the United States. They would create a government that was democratic and representative, strong but flexible, responsive yet authoritative enough to enforce its laws (which would be written by popularly elected representatives of the people). Without that kind of government, there could be no guarantees of life, liberty, or happiness. As Jack Rakove of Stanford puts it in the New York Times article on Allen’s quest to remove the inaccurate period from the Declaration, “Are the parts [of the Declaration] about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or—as Americans have tended to read the document—subordinate to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”
It takes energy to maintain a fair and free government. Energy on the part of citizens. We are so often lacking that kind of energy, particularly in the new millennium. George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address that the greatest threat to American life, liberty, happiness, and the government that provides them all comes from within America itself:
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for [the government] is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
Washington urges us to love our democracy and our democratic government, and to remember that it is a painfully new kind of government, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy to defend it. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
That’s why we are quick to believe there was no period after “happiness” in the original Declaration of Independence. The Founders knew that good, tireless government was the only safeguard of life, liberty, and happiness. As the Fourth of July approaches, we would do well to remind ourselves of that fact.