I’m neither proud nor ashamed to be American. It seems odd that anyone would invest much self-esteem (or self-loathing) in an accident of birth. Besides, haven’t we been warned that pride goeth before destruction?
That said, there are many things about America I cherish, and on this Independence Day I’d like to mention four of them, because we seem so caught up in the country’s faults that we’ve forgotten these revolutionary gifts.
The first is the most memorable political sentence in history: 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. Arguably, the entire American creed is summed up in that sentence. Yeah, yeah, the guy who wrote it owned slaves, and he clung to a teen libertarian’s idea of the social order long after he should have known better. But those words have inspired — and continue to inspire — tremendous human progress in America and the world. It’s no accident that in the iconic American speech of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. takes that sentence as the starting point of his dream.
The second gift, also aspirational, is the phrase a government of laws, not of men, a concept John Adams cribbed from the 17th century English political theorist James Harrington. Throughout human history the leader’s whim has been law, no matter how stupid, arbitrary, unfair, or psychotic, and short of rebellion the leader’s subjects are at his mercy. In the west, the idea of limiting the leader’s power through law started with the Magna Carta, a 13th century treaty between England’s King John and insurgent barons. It began unraveling within weeks. Adams and his fellow Founders wrote a Constitution that, however flawed, has been an impediment to tyrants for more than two centuries, long enough to supplant in most people’s minds the “l’état, c’est moi” governance model once deemed divinely ordained.
The third gift is a principle implied in the Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment and made explicit in case law: the burden of proof is on the accuser. This too is a radical break from pre-Enlightenment norms. To the degree there even were trials, accused parties had to prove themselves innocent — often impossible, as those accused of witchcraft in 17th century Salem discovered. No system of justice is perfect. America’s is less imperfect; if you think we’d be better off convicting one innocent person than letting ten guilty people go free, imagine yourself that innocent person.
The fourth gift, flowing from the third, is a body of law generally known as the rules of evidence. Saying something is so doesn’t make it so. You need proof in the form of relevant and reliable documentation, testimony from first-hand witnesses and experts, video, scientifically valid forensics, etc., and that proof must outweigh any contrary evidence the other side offers. Rumor, hearsay, and conjecture are not enough to condemn somebody (and shouldn’t sway our opinion of others in our personal lives, either).
Sadly, many who call themselves proud Americans — patriots, even! — fail to honor any of these gifts, as reflected by their contempt for those considered different, their embrace of authoritarian leaders, their disdain for uncertainty, and their susceptibility to readily-refuted conspiracy theories. So the struggle toward a more perfect union goes on.