A Letter by Gary Lawson
mpu | September 18, 2021
Many, many feel it. Perhaps most of us do. We are burdened with the palpable sense that something has gone terribly wrong, that we’ve lost our way while losing so much of ourselves along the path we have chosen as a nation. We seem to find ourselves in a place where patriotism has been reduced to flag waving or thanking veterans for their service. We are told that if we do not blindly celebrate all of America’s history then we cannot truly love our country. We are told that only individual liberty matters and any reminder of responsibilities to our fellow citizens is the first step on the road to tyranny. On another side we are told that America is not all that special, not worthy of our love because of the grave ills committed in her name. On that other side, we are constantly reminded of America’s failings but rarely if ever reminded of the beautiful deeds unprecedented in the annals of history that she has contributed to mankind, and the profound sacrifices made in the cause of individual liberty, human dignity, and broadened prosperity. Well, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that we are the reason why we’ve arrived at this point, and the good news is that the brilliance of our system and the awesome personal examples in our history and in our presence now provide us with both the power and inspiration required to correct course.
A wise friend once commented that when encountering particularly difficult situations that a return to first principles was a reliably indispensable tool in orienting toward possible solutions. So, perhaps reflecting upon the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States may be a worthwhile starting point.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
First, “We the People of the United States”: the bottom line is that it is up to us; our triumphs are not attributable to any individual and our failures cannot be scapegoated — we will succeed or fail together. Consequently, we all have far more in common than anything that might divide us, and the blame game is simply snake oil sold by charlatans to those unwilling to claim ownership of the inheritance bequeathed to them. Secondly, “to form a more perfect Union”: clearly, our Founders perceived that this was an ongoing effort and they undoubtedly understood the most fundamental truth: perfection is unattainable in human affairs but its pursuit is the only endeavor that can bring us closer to the ideal we seek. It’s worth considering whether any other secular gift in history rises above the highest ideals encapsulated in our Founding principles. Thirdly, ensuring “domestic Tranquility” is so critical as to be listed even before “common defence” or “general Welfare” or the “Blessings of Liberty” – seems like civility was one of the most important objectives and perhaps an enabler of all that follows. But, crucially, let’s not forget that “establish Justice” took precedence before all of those, and for good reason. Next, “common defence” and “general Welfare” speak to our responsibilities to each other as Americans – perhaps the point is that just like the call to “establish Justice” our first duty is not to ourselves, but to each other because only that commitment will make possible the aim to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Carefully reading that sentence it is impossible not to notice that while “ourselves” is not capitalized, “Blessings of Liberty” and “Posterity” are capitalized. Why, especially since these words were written deliberately with full comprehension of their historical importance? Could it be that notwithstanding all the libertarian rhetoric (devoid of any Constitutional or historical substantiation) it’s not all about “you” (and me) in the here and now. How can that be if liberty is what we as Americans cherish most?
Well, it reminds me of a couple things that might be helpful. One, the Republican Party rallying call so popular in my youth that resonated deeply with me– “with rights come responsibilities.” Two, while it may seem paradoxical to some that service to others is the thing that secures all that is most meaningful to us individually, the scriptures speak of this same concept (Matthew 10:39) as do many of the world’s great philosophies and poetry. Personally, my privilege of leading infantry Marines dedicated to securing the freedom and prosperity of their fellow Americans is the most tangible embodiment of that concept I have ever seen. Ultimately, our Founders were simply articulating in those few words a powerful premise that was fundamental to a generation who personally risked everything to establish freedom for future generations and adopted the all too imminent credo “”We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Unpacking some of those Preamble phrases may give us some additional insight. “Common defence” is one that most who consider themselves patriotic gravitate toward: my service as a Marine infantryman immediately conjures thoughts of defense against a foreign invader, but my lifelong study of history and training in the law beckons an understanding that is both broader and patently obvious. Clearly, defense against any threat that could disturb domestic tranquility or undermine the general welfare was the point. Is it not then our patriotic duty to defend one another against injustice, pestilence, plague and every other threat to “We the People”?
Another merits consideration. If a politician today were to proclaim the desire to “promote the general Welfare” it is easy to predict some impassioned, yet hideously ignorant, self-exalted expert on Twitter to decry the notion as “SOCIALISM!!!!” There is no doubt that we have fallen prey to the foolishness that anything worth saying could be communicated in 120 characters or less, but sadly, we are to blame for surrendering to the reductionist silliness that has obliterated thoughtful dialogue. While there are many honest differing interpretations of the phrase “general Welfare”, none can sincerely interpret it in any way that does not explicitly acknowledge the key takeaway – the ability to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” is a fool’s errand if we do not ensure that we care deeply for the welfare of other fellow Americans as we tend to the welfare of ourselves and our families and those with whom we most closely identify through racial, religious, cultural, or other affiliation.
So, what can we conclude? E pluribus unum – we are all in this together; from many, one. Next, seeking absolution from responsibility through scapegoats or victimhood only prevents us from exercising the agency inherent in our identity as Americans. The source of our cure is no single man or woman – it is the unity of “We the People” that allows us to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Nothing could be more antithetical to authentic Americanism than the thought that any one person is the source of our earthly salvation – we fought a revolution to resign that fantasy to the trash heap of history. Or, the idea that our ills are attributable to so-called elites, immigrants, one gender or another, or any other lazily concocted bogeyman. Next, individual liberty is only possible when each of us cares as much about our fellow Americans’ claim to it as we care about our own. Lastly, no man or thing created by man is perfect; yet, that does not prevent us from loving our family, friends, or countless other human creations – America’s history does not need to be perfect to love the ideal of it perfectly. Perhaps it’s not inappropriate to deliver it straight from the shoulder – welcome to adulthood, nothing is perfect, but never confuse imperfection with bad and never be too cynical to realize that “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”, and “malice toward none; with charity for all” are the means by which the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice … and will provide all that is needed to “strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds” in order to establish a more perfect union.
Any student of American history is well-aware that, in the words of Winston Churchill, Americans will always do the right thing, after trying everything else. The Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, and countless other examples underscore this point – it is worth remembering that all of these came at a dear, heartbreaking human cost. Let it be our fervent hope that we can come to our senses before we’re brought to our knees. I pray that this letter will be read by future generations as one of the last clarion calls before my fellow Americans voluntarily reclaimed their birthright and did so with hearts full of optimism, unity, and faith in a system that has liberated more people from oppression, lifted more from poverty, and created more prosperity and freedom than any in the history of the world. The Preamble’s message to us is like a voice yelling from the mountaintop: “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” will fail us, but “We the People” can deliver the nation from this crisis and that will only happen when we understand the first principles made so clear – patriotism is service.
Semper Fidelis. Always Faithful.