Tag Archives: John Locke

The Constitution: a product of Enlightenment ideas

American-ConstitutionThe Constitution of the United States is a product of Enlightenment ideas that define the relationship between the national government, the states, and the average citizen. This is a very important key to understanding what makes it a truly unique document and why it has thus far endured the tests of time.  Over the past few weeks, through Facebook, emails, telephone conversations, and even a few “real” world conversations, I have been asked by many why the current generation of Americans, those who are graduating from high school and college, seem not to be interested in politics or in defending or standing up for the Constitution. As a college instructor and as a freedom-loving American, I honestly believe that the major problem is the way we teach the history of the founding of our nation and the Enlightenment ideas that would define its nature.

The ongoing transitioning of America


When I was stationed in Europe in the early 1990s, I spent a great deal of my leave time travelling around to various places in that I had heard about or studied.  One of the places I visited was Athens, Greece, and was amazed at the number of classical Greek ruins still visible as a testimony to the greatness of the Greek empire and later Roman domination of the region.  These buildings were (and am presuming still are) the focus of many various projects to maintain them for future generations to enjoy and to be inspired as I have.

As a historian and with an academic background in the study of sociology and psychology, I believe that one of the things that led to the collapse of both the Greek and the Roman Empires was that of a transitioning culture.  What past generations once held as dear and as being the bedrock of their society.  What had been built by the older generations was neglected by the next generations; by the time the younger generations began their rise to power, there was a disconnect from the traditions and customs that had allowed Greece, and later Rome, to rise to prominence as a Mediterranean power.  All that remains as a tribute of those empires’ greatness are ruins, legends, and other intellectual achievements.  Outside of education, most people never think of the impact of those people from so long ago have on our world.

In the twenty-first century, the United States is undergoing a transition of its own. Beginning in the 1960s, the “new” American Left, wrapped in the ideas of free speech and the rejection of “traditional” mainstream values began making its way on the college campuses across the United States.  Learning from the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left focused on delivering its message to those in society that had become disillusioned with the demands of the American capitalist system.  It is during the 1960s, specifically the Lyndon B. Johnson years, where the New Left and the Democratic Party will claim the victory for the Civil Rights Movement – something that the Democratic Party had actually been in opposition to since the late 1860s (there was absolutely no Democratic Party support for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Amendments, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875; had it not been for Republicans and the wide base of Republican support, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 would not have passed).

There were a lot of things that the New Left claimed that needed to change in the United States; there were issues that did need to be addressed such as the racial and sexual discrimination and inequality that had become the standard. However, the assault against American society did not end there but continued to assault the things that had made America different from the rest of the nation. The free market system was one of the first things to come under attack; it was claimed that the capitalist system in America had created an unjust distribution of wealth and had left out a large percentage of the citizenry.  Also under attack was the role of the church – both as a public institution of the community and as an influence within that community. Besides the structure of the economy and religion, they also targeted the concept of the American nuclear family.  The New Left adopted a tone that not only discouraged other points of view from being expressed, they also began to craft the notion that any attempts to defend those social norms were attempts to enforce conformity of a minority to the will of a majority – and that this concept was distinctly – anti-American.

The current generation of publicly educated youth and college students have now grown up without an objective education about our nation.  Instead of teaching of how this nation was founded by a generation facing odds that many believed at the time was hopeless, they ventured out into the danger.  Through the blood and sweat of Americans of every socio-economic status and every race, they fought and won independence for a nation that the political theorists of their day deemed folly – no common people had ever governed themselves successfully.  Governance was reserved for the crown and the aristocracy, not the common man.  Anything else was deemed to be against the natural order of mankind.  Instead of focusing on the achievements of those men, the modern college history course and textbook teach that it was a group of white men who had no concern for the fates of women, free blacks, slaves, or even American Indians.  The textbooks discuss that it was a revolution that had to be sold to the common American colonist by the merchant class.  The “New Left” revisionist history of the United States not only denies the odds that generation faced, it also disregards the social norms of European society of that era (no nation allowed the common woman to take part in politics nor did any nation allow slaves or others outside the prescribed citizenry any sort of rights), but it also ignores that the American Revolution was truly unique – it was the first time that the entire strata of a society shared a common vision.

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The increasing importance of the First Amendment (Part II)

American-Flag-and-ConstitutionIt is probably the shortest of the original ten amendments that were ratified as the Bill of Rights. Although its wording is fairly plain and simple, its meanings have been debated in the nation’s courthouses, school rooms, college classrooms, political debates, congressional hearings and churches nationwide since its adoption in 1791.  It is amazing that yet again, just a decade into the 21st century, we are nationally struggling to define what was meant by those 18th century authors who wrote Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  

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Although I intended to briefly overview the First Amendment within my last post, I never was able to move beyond the “religious freedoms” clause of the Amendment and the reasons why it was deemed essential enough to be included. I have often thought that Benjamin Franklin’s  quote, “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.” The entire First Amendment is the ultimate protection of personal liberty that existed at the time it was written; its context and meaning must be maintained if we are to remain a nation of free peoples.

Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

The second freedom that the First Amendment deals with is at the heart of what Benjamin Franklin saw as the epitome of a free people – the right to freely exchange ideas.  From the time of the ascension of King George III as the sovereign of Great Britain, leaders in Parliament and the king believed that the British American colonists must be brought into the empire and integrated into proper British society.  Some historians argue that the Stamp Tax, designed to generate revenue by requiring all documents printed in the colonies to bear a stamp indicating that it was, indeed, a legally printed item.  This requirement included playing cards, legal documents, books, newspapers, and any other printed medium.  While it did generate some tax revenue, it is obvious that one of the side effects of the Stamp Act Tax was it could be used to differentiate between “legal” speech and “illegal” written speech.  It could be used to restrain or even curtail printed matter that was in opposition to the actions of the Crown and Parliament.  While under the guise of “freedom of expression,” the actual act of criminalizing the production of unauthorized publications would serve to censor the revolutionary thoughts of the day as their production would be greatly curtailed.  Without a single direct attack on the freedom of conscience, it would make written public dissent a crime to possess or to disseminate.

Earlier last week, I read an article that discusses the latest proposal by Senator Gloria Feinstein that would actually define who constitutes a journalist.  Within the definition of the proposed legislation, a journalist is defined, according to Watchdog.org as those who work as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information,” though students working for news outlets would similarly be covered.  The definition seems to leave out the new tide of bloggers and citizen journalists who thrive on the Internet.  The reason that there has never been a definition of what the press was or who should be considered as a journalist was not because newspapers did not exist, but because the British press had been under the influence of the Crown and Parliament, unable to legally publish articles critical of the imperial governance of British America.  Indeed, most of the articles published demanded that the Crown extract more control over the colonies and supported the Townshend duties, the Intolerable Acts, and the various Navigation Acts as being proper for subjects of the empire.  Had the monarchy had its way, the political theory espoused by Jefferson, Samuel and John Adams, Paul Revere, and Thomas Paine would never have been allowed to publish and disseminate their revolutionary rhetoric throughout the colonies.  Now comes Senator Gloria Feinstein and she is more than willing to do the job that Parliament and King George would have wanted to do.

Freedom of speech and the press are related and cannot be separated from one another.  It is why, from a grammatical frame of reference, there is a solitary comma to separate the two and not a semi-colon.  There is a relationship between the two liberties; the first phrase of the First Amendment clearly indicates that Congress does not have the authority to define or restrict through legislation the very concepts of freedom of speech or the press.  The free flow of ideas is paramount to the preservation of our very understanding of liberty.  In the past thirty years Americans have watched this very concept come under increasing attack. Beginning with the Adams administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by overzealous Federalists in Congress and signed by President John Adams – at the heart of it was the desire to protect political power and to shield criticism of the Quasi-War with France.  Again, in World War I, freedom of speech and the press were attacked again when the Democrats in Congress and the Wilson administration passed and enacted the Sedition and Espionage Acts as a means to control the criticism of the president and the American war effort in Europe.

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