by Paul R Lehto, Attorney at Law
Speaking at an Ohio State University commencement ceremony, President George W. Bush reminded graduating seniors that "idealism is needed in America." Walter Lippman defined it: "Ideals are an imaginative understanding of that which is desirable within that which is possible." Given America's idealism and its focus on imaginative possibilities, it follows that Americans of all parties are focused on an optimistic view of the future; things that are possible and desirable and thus constitute ideals are generally not contained in the present, but instead are realized in the future.
America is distinguished as the first country in the history of the world ever founded upon a cause or an ideal. Great Americans celebrate their own ideals, and American ideals. President Woodrow Wilson said "Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America is the only idealist nation in the world."
Americans are called to progressively achieve our ideals: Indeed, "the American," as President John F. Kennedy said, "builds best when called upon to build greatly." We started by building a great Declaration of Independence and Constitution, intended, as Founder Henry Clay put it, "for endless perpetual posterity."
This legal heritage of individual rights was not only considered a gift to perpetuity, it was consciously intended as a gift to the entire world. Ben Franklin observed it was not unusual but a "common observation here that our cause is the cause of mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in securing our own." Thomas Paine, the author of "Common Sense" and the most important American of that era according to both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, wrote confidently to the Colonists: "We have it in our power to begin the world anew." The ethical approach of the Founders extended not only to the present location and time, but was for the entire world and for all time, all of which was a fit subject for moral consideration.
Considering the highest of political moralities, President George H.W. Bush (Sr.) wrote: "I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who we are. But we're the people who sundered a nation rather than allow a sin called slavery, and we're the people who rose from the ghettoes and the deserts." He also wrote: "America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation, and gentler the face of the world."
American ideals have always been geared towards the creation of a progressively more just society that increasingly serves We the People. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller said during the 1970s: "America is not just a power, it is a promise. It is not enough for our country to be extraordinary in might, it must be exemplary in meaning. Our honor and our role in the world finally depend on the living proof that we are a just society." President Woodrow Wilson: "Our greatness is built upon our freedom, it is moral, not material. We have a great ardor for gain, but we have a deep passion for the rights of man."
Concerning the rights of man or humanity, the Founders could think of their purpose in no other way. President John Adams asked incredulously: "If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind, whom should we serve?" America was not a selfish project, it was an intervention in world history designed not only for freedom, but to rid the New World of European class system and aristocracy and the dangers of absolutism in all of its forms.
Absolutism, whether it is absolutism of power or absolutism of claims to truth, is defeated entirely by the concept of inalienable individual rights, set forth in our Declaration of Independence. Through these rights, the individual becomes a center of power, not just the government. The prohibitions in the Bill of Rights against the government taking sides via censorship, in favor of the freedom of the press, and the prohibition against government endorsements of ultimate religious truth via the separation of church and state, all of these are profoundly influenced by this nonabsolutist perspective: no one has a lock or a monopoly on truth; it is always better to keep the marketplace of ideas wide open, together with the various doors of religious worship.
The linkages of rights and American values form a perfect circle that reinforces over time and pushes America forward with continually reinforced idealism, whenever these principles are remembered:
1. First, governments are founded, wrote Thomas Jefferson, for the
purpose of protecting (not granting) Individual Rights.
2. Protecting Individual Rights unleashes the energies and
potentials of every Citizen, maximizing them.
3. The resulting supremacy of Individual Human Rights, as FDR
observed, is the very definition of Freedom.
4. From the unleashed energies of Freedom of the citizens springs an inherent Idealism
5. Out of Idealism springs both a Future focus and the proverbial
6. Out of a Future focus and American Optimism springs the
inevitability of Change, usually for the better, which is Progress
7. With Progress, we are asked in each generation to enlarge the
sphere of Individual Rights, via Progressivism. (if successful,
repeat from Step 1, above).
The celebration and the future of this country is going to be wherever folks are arguing DEMOCRACY and FREEDOM and WE THE PEOPLE. Just (1) Don't diss the idealism of America and (2) don't doubt it, either. * Although ideals may never be realized fully, they are like guidestars, without ideals to reckon by, individuals and nations get lost. *
If any President of the United States wants to accomplish something in our country, for better or for worse, he will invoke this power of American idealism:
"Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." --George W. Bush, 2d Inaugural address.
So, Yes, I'm an Idealist, a believer in the power of American Ideals. Like the architect of the American Revolution Thomas Paine, who said /" My country is the world, my religion is to do good " I'm sometimes a "do-gooder." / These ideals for me, like President Woodrow Wilson, are "how I know that I'm an American."
Regarding those who just can't handle idealists and do-gooders, I quote the immortal Mr. T. from the A-Team: "Pity the Fool." Nevertheless, we're still hoping they can make it to the American Party, because there is still a power and a magic there that makes us remember where we came from, where we're going, and what direction to take to get back on track.
This magic is on behalf of all humanity, and it's for all time. It's power for human rights, which are then maximized to create Freedom, which in turn spawns Possibilities, leading to more Faith in the Future, breeding new Optimism, fueling the processes of Change, pushing toward historic Progress, and knowing no bounds, continually expanding the sphere of human rights, all of which is connected to the single force in the American soul that alone has the power to begin the world anew: Idealism.