Sunday, August 1, 2010

Courage in American Political Life


Justice Clarence Thomas


Excerpts from a Speech at the American Enterprise Institute, May 22, 2001:


“…In my humble opinion, those who come to engage in debates of consequence, and who challenge accepted wisdom, should expect to be treated badly. Nonetheless, they must stand undaunted. That is required. And, that should be expected. For, it is bravery that is required to secure freedom.


…What makes it all worthwhile? What makes it worthwhile is something greater than all of us. There are those things that at one time we all accepted as more important than our comfort or discomfort -- if not our very lives: Duty, honor, country! There was a time when all was to be set aside for these. The plow was left idle, the hearth without fire, the homestead, abandoned.


We all share a reasonable and, in many ways, admirable, reluctance to leave the safety and peacefulness of private life to take up the larger burdens and challenges of active citizenship. The price is high, and it is easier and more enjoyable to remain within the shelter of our personal lives and our local communities, rather than the larger state. To enter public life is to step outside our more confined, comfortable sphere of life, and to face the broader, national sphere of citizenship. What makes it all worthwhile is to devote ourselves to the common good.


…I do believe that we are required to wade into those things that matter to our country and our culture, no matter what the disincentives are, and no matter the personal cost. There is not one among us who wants to be set upon, or obligated to do and say difficult things. Yet, there is not one of us who could in good conscience stand by and watch a loved one or a defenseless person --or a vital national principle -- perish alone, undefended, when our intervention could make all the difference. This may well be too dramatic an example. But nevertheless, put most simply: if we think that something is dreadfully wrong, then someone has to do something.


…Listen to the truths that lie within your hearts, and be not afraid to follow them wherever they may lead you.


The war in which we are engaged is cultural, not civil, it tests whether this "nation: conceived in liberty . . . can long endure."


The Founders warned us that freedom requires constant vigilance, and repeated action. It is said that, when asked what sort of government the Founders had created, Benjamin Franklin replied that they had given us "A Republic, if you can keep it." Today, as in the past, we will need a brave "civic virtue," not a timid civility, to keep our republic….”

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Chief Justice John Roberts on the Role of Judges

“Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them.

The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.

Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent, shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath.

And judges have to have the modesty to be open in the decisional process to the considered views of their colleagues on the bench.

Mr. Chairman, when I worked in the Department of Justice, in the office of the solicitor general, it was my job to argue cases for the United States before the Supreme court.

I always found it very moving to stand before the justices and say, “I speak for my country.”

But it was after I left the department and began arguing cases against the United States that I fully appreciated the importance of the Supreme Court and our constitutional system.

Here was the United States, the most powerful entity in the world, aligned against my client. And yet, all I had to do was convince the court that I was right on the law and the government was wrong and all that power and might would recede in deference to the rule of law. That is a remarkable thing.

It is what we mean when we say that we are a government of laws and not of men. It is that rule of law that protects the rights and liberties of all Americans. It is the envy of the world. Because without the rule of law, any rights are meaningless.

President Ronald Reagan used to speak of the Soviet constitution, and he noted that it purported to grant wonderful rights of all sorts to people. But those rights were empty promises, because that system did not have an independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law and enforce those rights. We do, because of the wisdom of our founders and the sacrifices of our heroes over the generations to make their vision a reality.”

From John Roberts’ opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sept. 12, 2005

Sunday, July 18, 2010

David McCullough on History Education


David McCullough was interviewed and asked his opinion of the state of history education in America. Following are a few of his comments as to what we can do to improve the education of our youth in American History:

“I feel strongly that we've got to revise how we teach the teachers. I would abolish schools of education. I think what every teacher ought to have is a good liberal arts education. … One of the problems with having a teacher that doesn't know the subject he or she is teaching is that they are more dependent therefore on the textbooks, and the textbooks, though there are some exceptions, are appallingly bad. Dreary, deadly it's as if they're designed to kill any interest you might have in history. And you can't love something you don't know any more than you can love someone you don't know. If the teacher doesn't know any history, how is he or she really going to love it? We know from our own experiences that it's the ones that really love what they're teaching that teach you the most.


But I don't think the problem is the teachers, entirely. I think the problem with education in our country is us. We're not doing anywhere near enough as parents or grandparents to talk about history with our children, to talk about the books we've loved about historical subjects or figures. And taking our children or grandchildren to historic sights... we can't leave that for the schools because they don't do it much anymore. Reinstate the dinner table conversation. Reinstate dinner as part of family life. I grew up that way. It's another era, I know, but there's nothing wrong with the idea that you'd talk about history or current events and politics at the dinner table. Every night. Go with your children to Fort Necessity or Monticello or someplace like that. They never forget it. It changes their life.


I know from teaching as a visiting professor or guest lecturer at universities for more than twenty years now that what our students don't know about American history is absolutely appalling. It's stunning. It leaves you gaping when you first encounter it. You think, How can this be? But it's correctable.”


David McCullough, Interview, New Haven, Connecticut, May 25, 2005.

www.powels.com/authors/mccullough.html

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Hand of Providence

When the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in May 1787, George Washington was elected to preside by a unanimous vote. He sought to do this in an impartial manner and took no active part in its debates, although his support was widely known and had a significant influence. Privately, he urged certain delegates to support the Constitution, writing "it is the best constitution that can be obtained...and...this, or a dissolution of the union awaits our choice." (Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia), Letter to Edmund Randolph, January 8, 1788). On one of the few occasions he spoke publicly during the four hot months in Independence Hall, he said: "If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God." (George Washington, as quoted by Gouverneur Morris in Farrand's Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, March 25, 1787).

James Madison, often referred to as the father of the Constitution wrote: "It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution." (The Federalist, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1983, no. 37, p. 222).

Alexander Hamilton, famous as the originator of The Federalist papers and author of fifty-one of the essays, said: "For my own part, I sincerely esteem it a system, which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interest." (Paul L. Ford, Essays on the Constitution of the United States, 1892, pp. 251-52).

Charles Pinckney, a very active participant and author of the Pinckney Plan during the Convention, said: "When the great work was done and published, I was struck with amazement. Nothing less than the superintending Hand of Providence, that so miraculously carried us through the war . . . could have brought it about so complete, upon the whole." (Id., Essays on the Constitution, p. 412).

Benjamin Franklin in his speech for Adoption of the Constitution, said: “All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth-that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid?” (Speech to the Constitutional Convention, 28 June 1787; Manuscript notes by Franklin preserved in the Library of Congress).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Declaration of Independence

Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equality. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the signers of the Declaration pledged to it their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[1] The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document. It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. The first three sentences constitute its most significant and oft-quoted words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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, That 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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

 Writing to Henry Lee concerning the source of the principles of the Declaration, Jefferson said: This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All it's [sic] authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c. [2] Abraham Lincoln said that ‘[these] principles … are the definitions and axioms of a free society.”[3] He concluded that that in the Declaration, Jefferson introduced “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times ….”[4] Indeed, the individual, natural rights of man and woman to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are universal. As we celebrate our nation's independence this 4th of July, may we read and reflect upon the words of the Declaration of Independence that declared to all the world that all men are created equal and that God is the "Author of Liberty."[5]
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[1] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.
[2] Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, ME 16:118-19.
[3] Abraham Lincoln to H. L. Pierce, April 6, 1859, Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953), 3:375-76.[1] [4] Id.
[5] Samuel Francis Smith, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (1831).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Virtue & Happiness

"There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." --George Washington

"Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?" --George Washington

"The order of nature [is] that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue." --Thomas Jefferson

“Happiness is the aim of life. Virtue is the foundation of happiness.” --Thomas Jefferson

"Without virtue, happiness cannot be." --Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thomas Paine: "Common Sense"


Published anonymously by Thomas Paine in January of 1776, Common Sense was an instant best-seller, both in the colonies and in Europe. It went through several editions in Philadelphia, and was republished in all parts of United America. Because of it, Paine became internationally famous.

Common Sense was "by far the most influential tract of the American Revolution....it remains one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language."

First and foremost, Common Sense advocated an immediate declaration of independence, postulating a special moral obligation of America to the rest of the world. Not long after publication, the spirit of Paine's argument found resonance in the American Declaration of Independence.

Written at the outset of the Revolution, Common Sense became the leaven for the ferment of the times. It stirred the colonists to strengthen their resolve, resulting in the first successful anti-colonial action in modern history.

Quotes from Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776):

“As parents, we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully. In order to discover the line of our duty rightly, we should take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life; that eminence will present a prospect, which a few present fears and prejudices conceal from our sight.”

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”

“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

“The reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.”

“The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.”

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

“When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

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