American Essentialism

The choice of heaven [or hell] is shown in the conduct of men. – Chinese Proverb

The passing of Nelson Mandela prompted me to reflect that both Nelson Mandela and Thomas Jefferson chose futures for their nations rooted in the essentials of democracy, and they made their choices in times when hell appeared to be the dominant choice. But perhaps it is always the case that freedom emerges when evil is forced to recoil back on itself. In the ranks of Justice, Jefferson and Mandela are up there with the very best of them.

It has so happened that when world occasions and circumstances reach Fahrenheit 415, leaders emerge who choose either heaven or hell. The list for either is long, but in our American case, in the time of the founding of the nation, we were blessed with a plethora of leaders who chose heaven—Washington, Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin, to name only the most renown. From an absurd catalyst—some bales of tea dumped into Boston harbor—a new American essentialism emerged that challenged all the taken-for-granted imperial constructs reigning from time immemorial in Great Britain and Europe. These imperial constructs were founded on the assertion that monarchal and imperial governments were ordained by God and therefore the will of the ruler was in essence the will of God—infallible, beyond all dispute. Scripture—Romans 13:1-7—provided the “proof,” sanctioning the political legitimacy of Kingship.

However, in the course of events, those assertions of divine authorization came under the critical eye of skeptical minds with the consequence that those putatively divine foundations were re-understood to be the all too human enactments of domination by privileged elites, both secular and religious.

Thus, in launching the modern mind, the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th-century took a long attentive look at the human condition, and, not liking what they saw, grew restless with the urge to change over to forms of government that offered a fairer distribution of justice and equality. Specifically, the modern mind of the Enlightenment grew especially skeptical about the traditional, well-entrenched interpretations of the Bible that legitimized, reified, and ratified the status quo. In America’s case, British Divine-Right law legitimized and justified British essentialism, which located power in absolute monarchical and aristocratic foundations.

But in America there were too many thinkers who had taken to heart the new skepticism of the Enlightenment and the product of that skepticism was American essentialism, a new interpretation of the purposes for which governments are instituted. Those revolutionary purposes founded American democratic government on principles antithetical to the principles of British imperial command, and constituted a revised understanding of where and with whom power should reside. British essentialism located power at the top, justifying it with quasi-legalistic-religious-mythical doctrines asserting that domination of the masses was foreordained by God.

Even though it took a Civil War and other struggles roiling the waters of democracy to this day, nonetheless, America’s essentialist doctrines borrowed from European and American thinkers created a new foundation for a government that placed in the hands of the people more control over their own destiny than any order of government heretofore. Thomas Jefferson memorialized this new essentialism, empowering the bottom, in the opening sentences of The Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

For Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers, governments are emphatically not instituted among men for the benefit of a privileged minority bent on preserving, at all cost, their ownership of government and their ownership of everything else deemed indispensable to the maintenance of an aristocratic power domain—or an oligarchic or plutocratic power domain riding herd on the populace.

Rather, governments are instituted to protect and preserve a more generous range of inalienable essentialisms, without which no government can, for long, insure the rights and liberties of all members of its polity. Jefferson’s first essentialism is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson’s second essentialism is that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and that that consent “secures” the rights stated in the first essentialism. His third essentialism, in effect, denies any and all claims that apex power constructs are never subject to revision because—so the justification goes—they are inviolable constructs ordained by the will of God. The third essentialism states that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [ends stated in 1 and 2 above], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Thus, the “Safety and Happiness” of all the people are the premier American essentialisms that displaced and replaced the old top-first, top-down essentialism of British law and government, commanding unquestioned obedience.

The Declaration, in so many words, not only establishes the will of the People as
“the Creator’s” locus of power but also establishes that power as an entitlement from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” which means there are no divinely sanctioned intermediaries—Popes, Vicars, Monarchs, Emperors, Plutocrats, Oligarchs, etc.—occupying a privileged rung on a ladder of power from which God’s will is winnowed to produce for a special elite, and their cohort, all the best of everything while the chaff is left to the suffering masses. Thus, the gift of freedom, as Milton—an early precursor of the Enlightenment—understood it, had to be a gift with three stipulations: “the liberty to know [the right to an education], the liberty to utter [the right to freedom of speech], and the liberty to argue freely according to conscience [the right to parliamentary debate without fear of censor or imprisonment].” All of which add up to the principle that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed.

Now think on it. How many times, even in our democracy, have the three liberties been abrogated or nullified by persons impugning the integrity of their fellow citizens, that is, impugning their rights to the three liberties because those persons don’t agree with the narrow views of the reigning orthodoxy. How many times, even now from media personalities, do we here words intoned and lessoned to us as shibboleths for separating loyal, patriotic Americans from ones accused of harboring subversive beliefs. Joe McCarthy was the first person deputized to lead that charge, flying high banners of suspicion, ruthlessly ruining the careers of many reputable Americans.

What the enemies of democracy won’t accept is the idea that “all men are created equal,” and that they have “certain unalienable rights.” In the eyes of the enemies of democracy all men must hold to whatever rights are granted to them by their betters. Argument and debate are punished with a whipping or worse. The enemies of democracy know absolutely what is right and will tolerate no deviance from the standards their God has endowed them with a special knowledge of. These holy rights, commanding unconditional submission, will not tolerate the idea that new occasions demand something new from us. We must march in the old path forever, bowing down to the idols produced by the faith of ancien regimes.

As a new statement of the human case, The Declaration of Independence excels, by far, all earlier essentialists formulations of governmental foundations because it does not encumber and fix the limits of human intelligence and invention to a narrow regimen of “certain truths” that must, under no circumstances, ever be violated. To set up a government on that basis is to hang heavy impediments to truth on the body of the polity, forgetting that even the most devoutly longed for idols sooner or later fall from their pedestals, victims of their own usurpation of the truth.

We have to learn to work better with what we get from the legacy of history. That legacy demands from us our most critical examination of the past so that the past is not repeated again and again, ad nauseum. No essentialist document remains pure for long; it soon becomes an ideological straitjacket if we don’t rise to the challenge of new occasions. Lincoln put it well: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” What is an ideological straitjacket? It is an interpretation of the foundations of history that venerates a highly privileged way of seeing the world while at the same time demeaning all other ways of seeing the world.

In Alabama and in most the states that once formed the Confederacy, the old ideology of master class and servant class is evident in public rituals. Woe unto those who fail to stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance with right hand covering one’s heart on every official occasion, or fail to recite the “Lord’s Prayer.” Socialists, liberals, and progressives and other un-American interlopers are, so current propaganda goes, eating holes in the fabric of democracy. But who is really eating holes in the fabric of democracy? The busy moths are the heirs of McCarthy, or walk in the footsteps of some media demagogue. Individuals do evil things most heinously when they believe their cause is incontestably holy. Holy deeds are almost always done to consolidate and reinforce the status of persons who spend their lives arrogating power and prestige to themselves.

Of course, although Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence propounded his own essentialisms from the modern thought of his time, he knew quite well that they did not add up to pure inviolable conceptions, perfectly realized for all time in the everyday world. Even as Jefferson’s words were engrossed in the document itself, and even as those words turned the known world of imperial rule upside down, Jefferson knew not all the people were included in the new democratic order—black people were only three quarters human and therefore could remain in slavery, and Indians were excluded, suppressed, and oppressed, and were treated as if they were agents of the Devil.

Jefferson knew that tending to injustice would be the never-ending task of democracy.