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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The American Vision

American scholar Thomas Sowell once told a story about a peer student asking his professor about freedom. The student’s question was: “Where did slavery come from?” The professor replied, saying: “You are asking the wrong question. The real question is: where did freedom come from?” This professor went on to explain that slavery, in some form, has always been the more common way of life, and that freedom is the rare exception. (Stewart 2011, 281). This was the case in the 1700’s when freedom was a concept largely unknown to most people in the world. In the context of all of human history up to that point, most had lived their lives under the control of a king, dictator, conquerors, owners, or authority of some other figure or group. It was in this environment that some colonial Englishmen in the new world began to resent the King of England. They envisioned a new government relationship in which power is completely derived from the people, and a government that is meant to serve the people, rather than rule over them. Over time, America has lived and improved on some of those ideals and forgotten or lost others. The United States of America has done more in the areas of human advancement, freedom, and prosperity in 200 years than any other civilization. However, is America still following all aspects of that original vision, and if not, can it regain what has been lost?
            In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, tension was building in America. It seemed impossible to the colonists that they would ever realize the vision they had been hoping for. The King of England was passing oppressive laws and taxes that couldn’t be fulfilled. There was even a shooting in Boston that clearly showed the tension between America and England. One well known historic event is the Boston Tea Party. Colonists were frustrated with the way King George III was treating them. Eventually they dumped an entire shipment of tea into the ocean in protest of taxes. Although these taxes were incredibly unfair, they were not the main problem. The reason colonists were upset was because of their lack of representation in taxation. A new system of government was needed. They envisioned a government which would receive its authority from the peoples’ consent (Thomas Jefferson 1776).  However, it was hard for this vision to become reality until 1776 when a declaration was sent to the King of England to explain the reasoning for the separation. That declaration became The Declaration of Independence, and expressed the founding vision and the need for a new nation: the United States of America. This declaration said that all persons have “unalienable rights”, and that the power of government should be vested in the people (Thomas Jefferson 1776).
After the defeat of England, the colonists got together to form a new government. Recognizing the consequences of a powerful government, the people were not eager to create another one. Prior to the Constitution, James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers, in which he stated that the federal government’s power would be limited to a few defined roles, mostly based on external affairs like trading and war. These papers also explained how all other affairs that concern the everyday life of the people should be controlled by the states (Madison 1778, No.45). This idea of the people having the power is also reflected in the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which states that the federal government has authority over specific responsibilities and that all other power is given to the states and the people (Constitution 1791). This vision is based upon the concept of individual sovereignty, where people are in power over themselves and their own government.
            Under this new vision, America flourished. Freedom on this scale was unprecedented until the founding of America. After the new form of government had been permanently established, America saw many benefits. With freedom, America saw prosperity and opportunity, and other countries noticed. More and more people began to immigrate to America. In fact, from 1800 to the 1930’s, about 60 million people worldwide immigrated to another country and about half of those people immigrated to America. The main reason for immigrating to America has long been for economic freedom and opportunity (Caughey 1966, 413-416,42-43). As America implemented freedom and individual sovereignty into their society, it became prosperous, peaceful, and stable.
            In addition to immigration, America had a very wealthy and strong economy. A British economist named Angus Maddison showed that by the 1830’s, America already had the highest per-capita income in the world. By the early 1800’s, America had higher wages than Europe.
A major reason that Europe failed to compete was their lack of strong intellectual property rights. The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, was the first in history to protect intellectual property rights: it empowered Congress to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Sorman 2012).
This prosperity and the other economic benefits were a result of the free environment that America provided. This allowed people to dream, seek, and achieve more than ever before.
Today, America still has the government created by the founding fathers, and it still follows that vision in many ways. However, are people still trying to do their own part to keep this vision alive? The voting statistics from 1960 to 1996 show that there has been a major drop in participation. The percentage of voting age citizens who voted in 1960 was 63.06% but it never got higher than that. In 1996, the percentage was all the way down to 49.08%. The lowest percentage was 36.40% in 1986 (FEC 2013). In another study, questions about American history were asked to 1000 random people in New York City. “Of those tested, 29 percent couldn't name the current vice-president, 73 percent couldn't correctly say why America fought the Cold War, 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights, and 6 percent couldn't circle Independence Day on a calendar.(PRNewswire 2011). Looking at these studies, it could be said that the American people are losing their understanding of the founding vision.
The American Federal Government has also grown in size and absorbed responsibilities that are outside of the limits defined by the Constitution, the 10th Amendment, and other historical documentation such as the Federalist papers. One way to show this is by analyzing the data regarding government spending as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In the year 1900, the Federal Government spent 7.8% of the GDP. Today the government is spending around 38 percent of GDP (Chantrill 2013). Other examples may include the many instances in which the Federal Government involves itself in areas not defined as their responsibility in the Constitution. Examples would include departments such as energy, education, environment, and healthcare.
In order to remember and practice the original vision for America, its people need to educate themselves regarding America’s history, so they can better understand what is happening today. There are sources available to study like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and other papers about the founding vision of America. When people forget their common history, they risk losing some of what binds them together. George Washington was a very intelligent man; he knew of the challenges that would come. This is best expressed in this quote: “Nothing but disunion can hurt our cause.” (Smith 1993 Company, 15). What he was trying to say was that America could become its own worst enemy. The only thing that can destroy America is if its people go against each other. Alternatively, there is nothing America cannot do when its people are united. The Federalist Papers and the Constitution explain what America’s government should be, but Abraham Lincoln also gives a description at the end of his Gettysburg Address: “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Lincoln 1863). It is important for the people to remember their history, learn from it, and preserve the vision that gave birth to the greatest country in history. America must remember this vision, with its purpose and blessings bestowed by our founding fathers, in order to protect America for future generations.

Caughey, Franklin. Land of the Free. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1966.
Chantrill, Christopher. US Total Government Spending. -- --, 2013. (accessed December 1, 2013).
Constitution, U.S. "Amendments." 10th Amendment, 1791.
FEC. National Voter Turnout in Federal Elections. -- --, 2013. (accessed December 1, 2013).
Lincoln, Abraham. The Gettysburg Address. Gettysburg, 1863.
Madison, James. "The Federalist Papers No. 45." In The Federalist Papers, by James Madison, No. 45. 1778.
PRNewswire. Newsweek Polls Americans on their Knowledge of Being American. March 21, 2011. (accessed December 1, 2013).
Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch, George Washington and the New American Nation. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993 Company.
Sorman, Guy. "A Brief History of American Prosperity." City Journal, -- --, 2012: Autumn Vol.22 No.4.
Stewart, Chris. "7 Tipping Points." In 7 Tipping Points, by Chris Stewart, 279. Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2011.
Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: --, 1776.