"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." Benjamin Franklin
In my twenties, I enlisted in the Army. There were multiple reasons behind that decision to join, but one was because it seemed like I was doing a noble thing. I felt good about my country, and I wanted to help. So, it was a shock for me to find that many around the world did not agree.
Friends, strangers, and many others I encountered felt America was a corrupt, mean, greedy, dominating, imperialistic, and racist country. As I looked back at America’s history through different lenses, I could see tragic instances of us not living up to our own ideals.
A book I read recently (written in 2003, but even more relevant now ), however, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, by philosopher Jacob Needleman, helped me recover the wisdom of our early icons without avoiding the problems, the flaws, and the complexity we have with appreciating them. That wisdom seems helpful today for our well-being personally, societally, and globally.
As Jacob Needleman argues in his book America was founded on the idea that within us all is Conscience, a ‘something’ – greater than our selfish egos – that can guide our actions and ways of being with each other. We have access to it when we are quiet, reflective, and in authentic dialogue with each other.
The Conscience (some used other names like God, the Divine or even Reason) helps us make decisions for the greater good. It helps us continue improving, prods us to grow into adults, and into our best selves. Believing that human beings have this Conscience, that people can get better at listening to it, and letting it guide us, undergirds our Constitution.
Needleman has a label for this commitment to Conscience and self-improvement. Needleman calls it developing our “inner democracy,” which is about cultivating our internal best selves and making space within ourselves to honorably struggle with the ideas of others. It is this collective commitment to Conscience that eventually allows us to iron out our inconsistencies and address our flaws.
George Washington had this commitment to Conscience. He also had slaves, though he allegedly struggled with the idea of slavery, even freeing his slaves upon his death in his 1799 will. He was seemingly blind to the freedoms withheld from women while also allegedly known to be better friends with women than with men.
Washington also exhibited incredible character on behalf of the then budding America when he stepped away from power. After the American Revolution, he could have easily become King of America. He declined. That release of personal power was then, and is yet today, unheard of. It shows us how people of power can care more for their country than themselves. We can be inspired by his example. We can learn from it.
Thomas Jefferson may have, most probably did have, an affair with his quadroon slave, Sally Hemings, he knew the evils of slavery, and yet he also wrote, “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,” as the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.”
It’s an inconsistency between actions and words (we have called it hypocrisy). Jefferson was probably fully aware of the inconsistency and struggled with it, leaving it to committed individuals who would come to right it after him. (What isn’t widely known is that in an early version of the Declaration, Jefferson drafted a 168-word passage that condemned slavery as one of the many evils foisted upon the colonies by the British crown. The passage was cut from the final wording).
Needleman points out that though the founders, very clearly, wanted freedom, liberty, and happiness, they were thinking much more broadly and deeply than we are today.
Of course, early Americans cared about taxes and wanted to be prosperous, but according to Needleman, our forefathers did not die for freedom and liberty so they (and their posterity) could lay on the beach, buy more stuff, and make more money. To Needleman, freedom was important for our forefathers because it allowed people to do their own inner work, to struggle with their Conscience, to decide what was right and wrong. Likewise, the pursuit of happiness was not about laying on the beach, making money, and buying more stuff; it was about striving to be your best self – becoming a person of character.
I like what Needleman says about our early commitment to developing character and Conscience, to work on cultivating our “inner democracy.” I can see its importance today for living a good life, both personally and societally.
How can we do that today? We can start by reading more – understanding our history, noticing the places where our founders were incredibly brilliant and the places where they were horribly blind. We can read both the works of Thomas Paine and of Frederick Douglass, among others. Where are we amazing blind? Where are we incredibly brilliant? We can look at the work of the Braver Angels who are willing to take on hot topics like Roe V Wade and guns by teaching people how to meaningfully dialogue. https://braverangels.org/ We can remember the famous quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
When it comes to developing our inner democracy, we might learn how to get better at a couple of skills – actively listening and working together. Those noisy, ego-centered delegates from thirteen wildly different colonies had to listen deeply for months. They had to listen to their own inner Conscience and make space for the Conscience of their peers. Then they had to figure out how to think together, how to collectively struggle toward reaching their common goals, and consider the greater good. We can look at their example, be inspired by them, learn.
I have gone through different stages of how I think about my time in the military and how I think about my country. The Army opened my eyes to different perspectives; it has led to a deeper understanding of my values – what I am willing to die for. I like the freedom to go where I want and say what I want. I appreciate having food on my table while understanding not everyone has that blessing.
More importantly as I listen to the investigation of the events of January 6th and think about celebrating the 4th of July in a few weeks, I am celebrating not only my outer freedom, but also the vision our early founders left us – the freedom to sincerely struggle, to improve how we work with our Conscience and develop our inner democracy… together. May we continue to work toward being a country capable of freedom.
How might sincerely struggling with your Conscience help you Journey to The Good Life in America?
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