In his latest book “The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection” author Tamin Ansary makes the point that “every stable society is permeated by a social paradigm that organizes human interactions, gives purpose to people’s lives, and makes events meaningful.” It behooves us then, to understand the origins of the social paradigm of our contemporary American society as conceived by the Founding Fathers.
The Revolutionary generation of the United States was overwhelmingly concerned with “virtue” as the essential element of public life. Virtue was a word they used repeatedly in their public statements. Researches note that the word virtue appears about six thousand times in the correspondence and other writings of the Revolutionary generation. Virtue makes more appearances than the word freedom.
The Founding Fathers were deeply concern with human frailty and kept those frailties in mind in the design of the new government. In the words of Founding Father Pierce Butler, “We must follow the example of Solon who gave the Athenians not the best Government he could devise; but the best Government they would receive.” That is what we have today, the best government we will receive.
The Founding Father’s concern with human shortcomings focused intensely on the fear that our leaders could become Caesar-like dictators. The world history familiar to them did not offer many examples of popular military leaders voluntarily giving up power. The example of Oliver Cromwell must have been uppermost in the minds of the Founding Fathers. Cromwell had, a century earlier, established the English republic, but then became a dictator who passed power to his incompetent son. Even today, a review of governments around the world makes the case for the Founding Father’s concern. Fortunately, our social paradigm was favorably molded by President George Washington’s virtuous decision to give up power after his second presidential term.
The Roman Republic, much admired by the Founding Fathers, did offer a relevant example of civic virtue in the behavior of Lucius Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was a Roman general who saved his country from a foreign invasion. As the story goes, Cincinnatus was plowing his fields when he was asked to defend the city which was under attack. He took over the army and achieved a swift victory in just sixteen days; he then promptly relinquished power and returned to his plow. On two occasions Cincinnatus was granted supreme power and given the title of dictator. On both occasions he did not hold on to power for a day longer than necessary. Cincinnatus is often offered as the classic example of civic virtue and service. The philosophical question here is whether moral civic behavior is the result of human agreement or, ingrained in our nature?
The social paradigm of the United States is that of a nation conceived not as an ethnic based society, but as a set of ideals such as freedom, honesty and justice. Ideals such as these blend and interact to make up our social paradigms. Consider that American patriotism has been historically different; it has never been explicitly linked to a single ethnic identity or place. For example, when President Reagan called for American unity, it was not a call to unify around ethnicity or land. It was a call to unify around the Constitution. His call for “American greatness and exceptionalism” did not remind us of race or geography. It evoked our founding documents: “As long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours.” America is not defined by its ethnicity or geography. America is defined by its founding documents. How unique is that!
America’s political paradigm is also distinctive. We criticize the role of money in American politics, and indeed, we must be vigilant that democracy does not turn into an oligarchy governed by a rich minority. But, although the aim of getting rich in the United States may be to gain political power; this is preferable to the corrupt formulation in other countries where the aim of gaining political power is as a way to get rich.
Dr. Azel’s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”
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