The America that was?

By David Bardallis
web posted July 1999

This year my grandfather--that is to say, my father's father--turned 106. This year also, if you measure from the moment the ink dried on John Hancock's signature, America turned 222 years old. My grandfather, unfortunately, passed away before I was born; I never knew him. Sad to say, I have begun to feel much the same way about my native land, and this feeling only intensifies around this time of the year.

Independence Day, more blandly referred to today as the Fourth of July (for independence is out of fashion), has been a time of celebration for as long as I can remember. And though I would like to say I have fond childhood memories of townsfolk dressing up in tri-corner hats, playing fifes and drums, passing out cherry pie, giving fiery speeches, and igniting terrific fireworks in honor of the great American principles of life, liberty, and property for which our forefathers perished--I must confess I have no such memories.

What I did have during those sweltering July summers when the stars were fireflies who flew off the earth and mosquito bites were the worst of my concerns was a feeling that all was well with the world. What I had was a child's innocent and unspoken--if not unthought--belief in profound but simple abstractions. Say what you will about the honesty of little boys (and here I lay no claims to sainthood), but it never would have occurred to me, for instance, that the adults I thought were in charge of things could be so obtuse.

Examples of such folks abound in the public square; you bump into them everywhere: on TV, in government, on the radio, springing from the pages of the newspapers. They are the people who tell us what to think and feel about everything, from ourselves to our families to our country. Yet so many of them display such a blistering ignorance of these things.

President Clinton, for his part, went so far as to claim in a speech a while back, "Last time I checked, the Constitution said 'of the people, for the people, by the people.' That's what the Declaration of Independence says!"

Was there a stunned response to this faux pas from America's chief executive, who has sworn to uphold the Constitution and faithfully execute the laws of the land? In a word, no. Clinton was greeted with resounding applause from an audience blissfully unaware that he was quoting from the Gettysburg Address. Nor was this flub widely reported or pointed out in the press. Why? Are our watchdogs themselves so ignorant of the founding documents of this country that they missed it?

Whether or not they are ignorant or merely indifferent to this country's heritage, the lack of attention to this gaffe--and the audience's own reaction to it--cannot bode well for America. Thomas Jefferson once remarked, "Those who wish to remain ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, want what never was and never will be."

Which reminds me of the President's erstwhile First Mate, Vice President Gore, who had his own moment shortly after the first inauguration. He failed to recognize busts of Jefferson and other Founders, and had to ask his companion who "these people" were.

Now as a boy, I may myself have been ignorant about who exactly the Founders were or what the Constitutition and the Declaration of Independence said, but I had a child's understanding of simple things like justice and liberty. And believe it or not, this child's belief has never left me completely.

When, for instance, I hear of the latest egregious assault of some government agency such as the BATF, DEA, EPA, or IRS on innocent and peaceable folks, it still incenses me. Because now, as an adult, the child's intuition that one should not be punished arbitrarily and excessively, for things that don't hurt anyone, has been crystallized into an understanding of the sort of republic the men of 1776 meant to bequeath to us.

I understand now the words of the Constitution that the people now elected under it fail to grasp. The men who wrote that document would never have dreamed of referring to government "programs" or "services." They weren't fighting to separate from Britain because they believed they could run a "more efficient" government. They didn't even want King George to balance the budget or "pay for" a tax cut by reducing the amount of treasury funds he spent on maintaining the Empire.

They wanted the freedom to live their own lives as they saw fit, free from the interference of busybodies, statisticians, and utopians who feel an unceasing need to control, mold, and shape everything they come across--including and especially humanity. They didn't want this freedom for some greater design, for the ability to live and breathe free to them was the greatest political end that could be achieved.

This love of freedom, despite occasional lip service given on "historic" occasions, is all but absent in today's most pressing debates. Our "leaders" never ask if they have the authority, either morally or constitutionally, to interfere with the public liberty; they simply do it, with nary a peep of protest from the loyal opposition. Simply compare the debates that took place over the ratification of the Constitution to the "debates" of today, where both sides agree on fundamental premises and quibble over dollar amounts. There is no comparison; the Founders really debated something: they debated the best way to secure liberty for the people of the new nation.

Picture Patrick Henry today standing up on the floor of Congress and declaring in a thundering voice, "I know not what course others may choose, but as for me, give me a flag burning amendment or give me death!" It doesn't have the same ring.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1923, "For good or evil, a line has been passed in our political history; and something that we have known all our lives is dead. I will take only one example of it: our politicians can no longer be caricatured."

Unfortunately, America today seems to be governed by people who are already too much of a caricature to be caricatured. I still long for someone to stand up in the public square and passionately defend the values the men of 1776 died for, but I know that this July, and the next, I'll have to settle for dreams of a grandfather I never knew and a country that may once have been.

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