The Public Square likes to think of the period from Halloween to January 1 as a time of gratitude first (Thanksgiving), then giving (Christmas Holidays), and finally a fresh becoming (New Year’s). They flow smoothly and are a good format for seeing how our lives as citizens can have a new meaning that is purposeful.
American citizenship over time has advanced from a prescriptive exercise of responsibilities a free society requires, to a tradition of volunteer participation in our national life and the shaping of personal prosperity for our citizens, to a system of administrative citizenship for today’s more complex culture. Yet the greatest element of the gift of liberty to Americans may not have yet been exercised or fully discovered.
Without trying to document the direct or indirect influence of Western religious heritage and generally thought on our founding documents, citizen freedom in America was seen from the start as an “open door” – the gem of Life, owing it’s origins to Providence alone. It was a radical notion.
Nothing in political history, before or after, has been so bold. Mind and conscience were deemed the ultimate tributaries of life. No limit was put on the future possibilities of this transformative idea. The “open door” was imagined as casting a permanent imprint upon history, but its form and future did not pretend to be grasped. Americans over time, bearing a new civilization, would assume the responsibility of its interpretation.
In 1782, Jean de Crevecoeur asked, “What then is the American, this new man” – who was seen having a future heritage unlike anyone before him? And in April 1787, on the very eve of the Constitutional Convention, an acclaimed full-length play, “The Contrast,” (by Royall Tyler) depicted an American “of probity, virtue [and] honor.” In the words of one critic, this American had “much language of the heart” and little self-elevation. The quest for simplicity mirrored some degree of alarm in the 1780’s that frivolous excesses not sap the energy of our young nation.
This feeling at root was less how Americans would be different than how they would use their freedom to create abiding inner strength. For government had purposely walled the citizen and sanctioned individuals so they would be free to mold the best in their nature, character, and citizenship. An untested government voted its final faith in Life itself. It saw true liberty giving people the chance to act deliberately in their lives on truths before them.
Inherently, of course, liberty leads to action. The freedom to exercise the will, in fact, creates the very moment we are free. Not acting, we remain the same and never grow. Being paralyzed, in turn, only weakens society. But once an action freely is taken, and a truth discovered that aids one’s life, a person is never the same. On this deep principle and reservoir, which enshrines the cornerstone of liberty forever, the hinge of human progress rests.
The concept of the “open door” is truly monumental. Eras may come and go, good times and bad. The clouds of history and thunder of adversity can tear at our fabric, then slip into oblivion. But our rights granted by divine law can never be revoked by time or society, or one’s age, generation, or inheritance.
After all, true citizenship is born within. We grow mainly from the inside out not outside in, from the heart, not the head, from the basement of life not the attics of experience. From the inside – one by one – we become who we are. It’s a more anxious way to live, but the one life gives us.
The public order has its role, but our personal order shapes how good the public order becomes. While we have evolved citizen life naturally over the decades, we now see rights and responsibilities more unevenly accepted, our social mobility more in decline, our unity as a nation not as apparent, and the atmosphere of our citizen regimen less that of creating energy than a faint doom of oppression for many.
In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote, “We are the heirs of all time ….The seed is sown, and the harvest must come.” The Public Square questions going forward if we’ve opened the citizen tradition in America enough to prize the true engine of the house of liberty – the Protean idea of our nation – crafted, when set out, to last the ages? It asks if the ultimate element of mind and conscience to our beginnings is ready to be the pearl society makes part of the citizenship equation and standard for everyone.