The American Dream began with those who came here to escape their nightmares. Some, in fact, found their nightmares here. Our Founders were the oddest mix of all: they both articulated the dream for themselves and their children and, in the case of those who owned slaves, perpetrated a nightmare on others. Now we find ourselves, as their descendants, with the job of maintaining and extending our national dreams, and awakening from the horrors of our national nightmares.
Our Founders were not perfect people- a fact to be neither whitewashed nor ignored- but they reached nonetheless for extraordinary ideals and encased them in a Constitution that institutionalizes our liberty. They risked their lives; signing the Declaration of Independence to make a historic break from the past - a past they deemed an unworthy template for the human experience. They changed the course of human events, reaching beyond the accepted boundaries of what was to be expected from life, stretching the limits of human possibility. They left in their wake a compelling promise, not only to Americans but also people throughout the world, that a society could exist in which the individual talents and abilities of free, self- governed people could come together fruitfully, harnessed in the service of collective good.
The founding of America is not a tale drawn from one-dimensional lives. Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and Paine were very real people - nothing in their day like the formal and official portraits of them that now hang in polite museums. The same is true of their successors- the great American statesmen, political thinkers, social reformers, philosophers, writers, and artists who have helped us refound ourselves from that day to our own time.
In making wooden characters of very juicy people we have diminished our own connection to them. Jefferson almost did not emerge from his grief over the death of his wife, and years later wrote love letters to Mari Cosway that make THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY look tame. Lincoln would bury his head in his hands each time news reports reached him of massive casualties in the Civil War, sobbing, "I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it." Polio victim Franklin D Roosevelt clung to the arm of his son in a heroic effort to appear to walk on his own to the podium at the 1932 Democratic Convention, knowing that if Americans thought he could not walk that they would never elect him. He succeeded and was then described by a friend as having been "cleansed, illumined and transformed by his pain."
What is important is not merely that we record history, or that we understand it from a seemingly objective perspective. What matters is that we take it personally, that we own it in the deepest part of ourselves, that we might solidify its power where it is something to be proud of and try to transform it where it is not.
The great figures of American history still reach us from the grave, having said and done things that affect each of us in a practical manner, every day of our lives. Their stories illuminate not only what happened before but most significantly what is likely to happen again. We are challenged by an adequate knowledge of history to measure our lives in relation to it, to succeed where others have faltered, to run the race others ran, to try to keep the wheels of history moving in a positive direction., The past teaches us, most important, that the movement of history in a positive direction can never, ever be taken for granted.
Yet we do take it for granted that we are the heirs of our Founders' vision. Vigilance doesn't seem to be necessary now; surely SOMEONE is watching the store. But there is no one here but us, and more and more we might ask ourselves if we have not become, in our generation, more like the royalists who did not support the revolutionaries, who chose to remain in the yoke of serfdom, trading the sometimes uncomfortable quest for freedom for the comfort of false security. Our Founders asserted the dramatic proposition that if ordinary people are deliberative and responsible, then they can run the affairs of the nation. But today we are not doing that. With our voter participation among the lowest of any democracy in the world, we have allowed an unholy alliance of government -like a new monarchy- and corporate influence - like a new aristocracy - to take control of events in a way that would have made our founders shudder. Surely, were they here now they would worry for the dream of liberty that they weaved for their posterity. We have not lost our rights, but neither are these rights profoundly secure. We are much like a massively bleeding person who has not died yet. That person will die unless transfused. And we will lose the precious blood of our democratic freedoms if we do not wake up and we do not act.
We have become a distracted nation. We know more about the lives of television actors than of our great historical figures, and more about the way our toys work then the way our democracy works. Yet there is a hunger rising among us to get back to the things we forgot along the way.
The principles that our Founders elucidated in the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and our Bill of Rights, then continuing with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, are the sacred powers at the core of American democracy. They are not rules but values. They act as pillars upholding the dynamic energy of American democracy, and they can handle any assault except the people's diminished commitment to them. It is seriously detrimental to our individual and collective good that the average American citizen can't quite tell you what those principles are.
Our democratic principles are essential ingredients in the American Dream. They protect the dream and stave off the nightmares. They are the light at the center of our democratic hopes.
America's first principles are simple and basic. They are under girded by an even more basic idea: that we are a democracy and thus govern ourselves. These principles are guideposts for the process of doing so. They are the keys to our freedom and the freedom of our children.
Yet too few of us are passionate about these principles anymore. Citizenship means more than voting, paying taxes, or obeying laws. It is, when we choose it to be, a powerful expression of self, the absence of which makes it easy to steal from us the powers we have been granted.
America's first principles are not partisan issues. They are the things on which we have agreed to agree. We believe that all people should be equal before the law. We agree that power in America shall stem not from the government into the people but rather from the people into the government. We agree to seek to balance individual rights with protection of the general welfare. And we agree that people shall have the right to freely practice and share their religious, social, and political beliefs without threat of eternal tyranny.
A nation "so conceived," in the words of Lincoln, is divinely inspired by the universal blessing inherent in these first principles. Divine inspiration is not a metaphor. From a spiritual perspective, it is literal power to transcend and subsume all lesser ideas.
There are dramatic examples throughout our history of contests between those who would commit the nation to its stated principles and those who would compromise those principles for short-term personal or economic gain. The Civil War, for instance, pitted those who chose to hold the nation to its principle of equality for all against those who tried to secede from the Union rather than give up slavery and comply.
In other words, our governmental principles are often more advanced than we are, owing to the extraordinary prescience and genius of our Founders. In1801, the newly elected President Jefferson admonished the nation to make "periodic recourse to first principles," relying on their power and the power of our collective agreement to adhere to them, to guide us as beacons through darkened times.
It is extremely rare that an issue comes up in American society that does not have light cast upon it by our first principles. They form America's political bedrock. Today, our problem is that most
Americans do not know what those principles are. We were either taught them at school (where, for the most part, they're not even taught anymore!) and have forgotten them, or we actually never learned. We therefore tend to think of political negotiation as a fight between competing opinions, rather that a process by which we all work toward a higher realization of principles on which we already agree.
Our first principles stand outside of time, providing a stillness that keeps our nation centered through the centrifugal tides of historical change. Referring back to them collectively is an exercise of profound democratic authority. We have allowed the stresses and merchandising of modern life to lure our attention toward lesser things, creating a crisis in American democracy.
The first principles are our tools; every citizen needs to have them in his or her mental pocket. You don't have to be a lawyer to understand them; James Madison was the leading spirit among those who wrote the constitution, and he was not a lawyer. You don't have to be a college graduate; George Washington was not a college graduate. You don't have to be a so-called expert to have a valid opinion. You don't have to be anything but a citizen, to be a source of power of the United States. In fact, that's the entire point of our power: that it belongs to "We, the people."
These principles are planted firmly in the soil of human conscience, and they are important for their spiritual as well as political significance. They hold power not only for us but also for people throughout the world, because they reflect the tenets of a higher law. Hearts around the world have hearkened to these principles, from French Revolutionaries in the eighteenth century to Chinese dissidents in Tiananmen Square.
And yet, for this country, only one thing matters: do our hearts hearken to them now?
Excerpted from 'Healing the Soul of America-
Reclaiming our Voices as Spiritual Citizens' (amazon.com
© 1997, 2000 by Marianne Williamson- a Touchstone book. Excerpts from pages 62-67 in the Dreams and Principles section.
This excerpt may be freely distributed electronically as long as it contains all the above information.