January 22, 2009


From revolutionary ideal to American reality (Mark Feeney, January 20, 2009, Boston Globe)

The United States is unique among nations for beginning in abstraction. Other countries arose from some specific condition: tribal membership, geographic boundaries, a common language. America has its origins in nothing more (or less) than a set of principles - or as the Declaration of Independence calls them, "truths."

The Declaration holds those truths "to be self-evident." The first of them is "that all men are created equal." The phrases are familiar enough from civics class.

What's less familiar is the realization that, insofar as any one thing might be said to define this country, it's those six words. They were quite literally revolutionary in 1776. In some ways, they remain revolutionary today, so much so that we still have a hard time defining exactly what "equal" means.

We sometimes had a hard time living up to it, not defining it. America is a republic and republicanism flows from a fairly simple notion of uniform standing before the law:
Classical republican writers maintained that to be free means to not be dominated--that is, not to be dependent on the arbitrary will of other individuals. The source of this interpretation of political liberty was the principle of Roman law that defines the status of a free person as not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person--in contrast to a slave, who is dependent on another person's will. As the individual is free when he or she has legal and political rights, so a people or a city is free insofar as it lives under its own laws. [...]

Classical republican theorists also stressed that the constraint that fair laws impose on an individual's choices is not a restriction of liberty but an essential element of political liberty itself. They also believed that restrictions imposed by the law on the actions of rulers as well as of ordinary citizens are the only valid shield against coercion on the part of any person or persons. Machiavelli forcefully expressed this belief in his Discourses on Livy (I.29), when he wrote that if there is even one citizen whom the magistrates fear and who has the power to break the law, then the entire city cannot be said to be free. It can be said to be free only when its laws and constitutional orders effectively restrain the arrogance of nobles and the licentiousness of the people.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 22, 2009 6:21 PM
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