The roots of the American experiment in democracy reach back thousands of years, fed by our failures as well as our successes, our crimes as well as our ideals. When at last we learn humility, our republic will bloom.
I was born in Philadelphia and grew up loving America. My immigrant grandparents spoke with tears in their eyes of the goodness of this country, and to my father, Abraham Lincoln was just a little lower than God.
I remember the fervor with which we young children protected the flag. If you allowed the flag to fall, even if it barely brushed the ground, and even if it was only one of those cheap paper penny flags that abounded on the Fourth of July, touching the flag to the ground was a grave sin that could be redeemed only by instantly kissing it.
I loved America. Down deep I still do—as do most of us, no matter what we may condemn as unjust, ugly, or evil about this country.
The inner America
As a child, when I loved America, I loved freedom, hope, nature. I loved, in my childlike way, the authentic inner possibilities of human existence. If we see only the conformity, corruption, rank injustice, materialism, superficiality and vulgarity, meta-physical squalor, and blind attachment to physical comfort, then I see the death of America. But if we look more deeply, we may still see a nation and a people granted for a brief moment the material and spiritual conditions enabling us to step into the real future of humanity, the future of the developing soul.
We find evidence of the great gifts of America by looking at some of the insights left to us by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Peacemaker of the Haudenosaunee, Frederick Douglass, and other founders of America. They passionately strove to create a place where the Good—some called it God, others called it Reason—could enter human life.
The Great Peacemaker
One of our earliest founders lived well before Columbus discovered America. The Great Peacemaker is said to have been born in the Great Lakes region of North America sometime around 1000 ad. His people, the Haudenosaunee, now called the Iroquois, were beset by endless conflict. Village fought village. Blood raids led to retaliation. No one believed there was a way out. Then came the time of the Great Peacemaker.
... When he comes of age, the Great Peacemaker tells his grandmother and his mother that his time has come to seek out other tribes and nations and bring the message of peace. He sets off in his canoe, scanning the horizon for rising smoke. Day after day he sees nothing, for all the settlements are now hidden in the hills to protect themselves from the war parties plaguing the land.
Finally, the Great Peacemaker sees hunters running along a barren shore. He beaches his canoe and says to them, “Go back to your settlement and tell your chief that a new and good message has come, the message of peace that is power.”
When the tribal chief hears their news, he asks the hunters, “Who told you this?”
“He is called the Great Peacemaker in the world.”
The chief wonders at this and asks, his eyes turning toward the stockades that hold his starving, quarreling people, “How could it be? From what source will such peace come?”
The hunters reply simply: “It will come.”
The hunters' strength of conviction fully opens the chief's mind to his own faith that in the world of man there is a force of peace that can come to the people if only they will turn their minds to it.
“Truly,” he says, “this is a wonderful thing. This news of itself will bring the beginning of peace to our people if once they can hear it and understand it and believe it. It will begin to free their minds of the hatred that comes from fear.”
The Great Peacemaker passed from settlement to settlement, and the same scene was repeated with each of the chiefs as they were quickly convinced of the power of peace.
This is just one part of the longer Haudenosaunee story. It tells of a messenger, sent by the Creator, who leads the people back to their true path and guides their creation of a constitution known as the Great Peace. Its laws enable humanity to live as one family and to permit the power of divine peace and harmony to enter their lives. The Great Peace has ruled Haudenosaunee society since then, embodying principles similar to those that later found expression in the governance of the United States.
George Washington's defense of liberty
George Washington's stature and legacy derived not primarily from what he did, but from what he did not do. Ironically, our nation, which thrives on ever-accelerating outward motion and “doing,” began with a man whose action was a renunciation of action.
Consider his resignation in 1783 as commander-in-chief of the American forces, a step that historian Gordon S. Wood calls “the greatest act of his life.”
“It was extraordinary,” Wood writes. “It was unprecedented in modern times—a victorious general surrendering his arms and returning to his farm. ... Though it was widely thought that Washington could have become king or dictator, he wanted nothing of the kind.”
Historians cite numerous personal reasons for Washington's decision. But the most telling was that he stepped down in order to preserve the essence of the American republic.
Had Washington died in office, the presidency probably would have become a lifelong position of individual power, comparable to that of monarch. But Washington's withdrawal allowed an election to take place with his approval. His stepping down signified that the people and the Constitution are the only rightful source of authority in the new nation.
By stepping down, Washington made room for something greater than human pride. Surely, no healthier redefinition of the idea of will can be imagined: the voluntary surrender of accumulated personal power for the common good.
Thomas Jefferson's Bill of Rights
When Thomas Jefferson first saw a draft of the Constitution, he immediately urged that the Bill of Rights be added. Why did he believe it was necessary to add these guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, the press, the right to assembly, the right to petition for redress of grievances, and all the rights protecting the individual in matters of law, arrest, privacy, and personal security?
“Human rights” for Jefferson did not mean solely the right not to be interfered with by government. It meant the right to pursue one's authentic obligations as a God-created and potentially godlike human being through the latent power of divine reason (or conscience) within oneself.
Democracy, Jefferson maintained, must be neutral with respect to sectarian religion, but positive spiritually and morally. Freedom of religion also meant freedom from religion, that is, freedom from imposed or suggested beliefs. Only within the frame of this freedom could individuals discover the moral and spiritual power of reason within themselves.
For Jefferson, the aim of self-government was not the satisfaction of desires, but the incarnation of our free will. The pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson and the Founding Fathers understood it, is not the pursuit of consumer products. The happiness Jefferson spoke of is a matter of the human spirit, our moral and intellectual faculties in harmony with nature.
Jefferson saw clearly the dark side of human nature and sought a form of government that would keep this aspect under control through a mechanism of force and counterforce resembling the way nature itself works. But he also passionately believed in the capacity of individual human beings to grow under specific conditions of communal life and individual effort. These conditions combine the development of the mind through free intellectual intercourse and free access to knowledge; the feelings, through the struggle to allow one's neighbor the right to his opinion and his place in the social order; and the physical organic substrate of human nature through a life in direct contact with the Earth and its rhythms, its demands, its bounty, and its severity—namely through a life rooted in agriculture.
Democracy as a political system was to be the skin and bones that supported and protected the pulsing movement of human life toward the goal of individual obedience to reason and conscience, “Nature's God” within oneself. The new government, in Jefferson's eyes, should be an armor that would allow and support the growth of moral power within the individual members of the society.
Frederick Douglass and America's heart
On July 1, 1852, Frederick Douglass was the honored speaker at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Born into slavery in 1818, Douglass escaped to the North at the age of 20. He traveled throughout the northern states speaking about the meaning for America of slavery and its horrors, and became widely respected for his courage and intellect.
The bitter irony of a black man being invited to celebrate the Fourth of July was not lost on him—and he made certain it would not be lost on his audience.
Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? … The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?It was precisely because America was only recently conceived as an expression of humanity's greatest moral ideals that its contradictions and failure called out so clearly. It was America's greatness that makes its evil so clear and so shocking. In accepting the contradiction of slavery, America had lost its soul.
Look at yourself, said Douglass to America. Look at what you are and measure it against what you imagine you are and what your conscience tells you you must be. Be shocked, America! Be stunned, be overwhelmed by what you see, and feel at the center of your being the purifying fire of remorse.
Douglass then called for that rarest of movements a human being can make—a fusion of inner opening and decisive outer action. Feel the truth of what you are, America, and at the same moment act! Risk yourself for what you know is right and true. It was what Douglass himself had done when, as a 16-year-old slave, he committed the unthinkable act of physically turning against his slavemaster.
The hope of America cannot be renewed without acknowledging the reality of slavery and allowing its consequences to speak their truth to our hearts and minds. Seen in their universal meaning, America's fundamental failures enable us to root our moral actions in the harsh soil of history, rather than in a vague and anxious self-condemnation or a mindless fog of self-justification. It is by facing our nightmares that we may pull ourselves free from America's futile dreams of progress and face our role in the barbarism that has so deeply stained the fabric of human history.
When we accept these truths about ourselves—both our triumphs and our failures—how will the story of America change? Will our heroes no longer be heroes? Our triumphs no longer triumphs?
Not at all. Instead, something entirely new and necessary will fill every limb and cell of the story of America, and that “something” has a very precise designation—humility and remorse.
I seek neither to revile nor to romanticize the actions and actors of America's past. The cultural hero of the present age is no longer the Warrior or the Savior or the Adventurer, the Lover, or the Wise Man. It is the Seeker. Our heroes will remain heroes, but now more clearly heroes of both the inner and the outer worlds of history.
We ask for a vision of America that can help us see more clearly what we actually are and what we can work to become. This is the same kind of vision that we need as individuals struggling for self-knowledge and moral power. Like America itself, we must discover how to look impartially at both our inner greatness and our profound weaknesses—self-deception, arrogance, and betrayal.
America is an original expression of ideas that have always been part of the great web of Truth. Explicitly and implicitly, the idea of America has resonated with this ancient, timeless wisdom and has allowed something of its power to touch the heart and mind of humanity. We must recover this resonance, this relationship, however tenuous and partial, between the teachings of wisdom and the idea of America.
Adapted from The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, by Jacob Needleman, published in Feb. 2002 by Tarcher/Putnam, NY. This is the Land, by Carlos Cortez, reprinted with permission of Charles H. Kerr Publishers.
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