Years ago, when I was on the Board of Directors of my local hospital, I attended a seminar on the duties and responsibilities of a board member. One speaker pointed out that the board member’s loyalty was not to the physical structure of the hospital, but to the mission of the hospital; that is, our loyalty was not to the tangible aspect of the hospital, but to the idea of the hospital —what it stood for.
I think that distinction is also what unites all Americans no matter how much we may differ politically. We regard our nation not merely as a collection of people and buildings and highways, but as the embodiment of an idea, an idea that was first formalized by the Declaration of Independence. A lot of us rightly revere the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, as interpreted by the courts, but we FEEL the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. They are as much of part of individual Americans as our bones:
“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 is the Idea of America that we uphold for ourselves and defend for future generations.
Of course, those all-inclusive statements weren’t really so all-inclusive at the time. Great in theory, but not in practice. All men may be created equal, but slaves were not included in that sweeping statement. Same for liberty; white men yes, women less so, and slaves not at all.
But here is the remarkable thing about our country, we took those noble but narrowly interpreted sentiments and expanded them; made the nation conform to the ideas of equality and liberty. We were, and are, the guardians of the concepts of the Declaration, not as they were in 1776, but as they could become.
Did Jefferson, who was the chief author of that document, actually believe that “all Men” meant only men of his own class, property owning white males, or was that choice of words one of the master strokes of his genius? Had he defined exactly which “men” he was talking about the scope of our freedoms today would be limited by that definition. But these Revolutionaries were men of wisdom and great foresight who understood that the Declaration and the Constitution were not only principles for their present time but for a nation which would exist in a future they could neither imagine nor understand.
The America we inhabit today is vastly different than the America of the Founders, except for one thing: the precepts of the Declaration and the Constitution are still in full force and have guided us through times both good and bad, and they have done so because of the studied vagueness of the language that they used.
Today, we interpret “all men” as meaning everyone: men of property and of no property, women, people regardless of race, color, religious belief, social standing, or sexual orientation. Of course, our founding documents did not say that, but they were written in words that lent themselves to interpretation and re-interpretation as the times might dictate,
We may all have differing notions of what makes up the American spirit, but we all start from the same beginning, and that is the IDEA of America given us by the Founders of our great nation.
Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.