...But can freedom truly last forever? Americans in this generation may take freedom for granted, glorying in how they have become free and basking in how they enjoy freedom today. But they need to see that their nation’s superpower status creates the illusion of invulnerability that is the core of hubris. Of all times, times of dominance are the most dangerous in which to be complacent about freedom, for in the life cycle of great powers only one thing finally follows dominance: decline. Dominance eventually leads to decline as surely as day ends in night. Thus dominance is precisely the time to think through whether a free people can remain free forever, why the founding generation dared to believe in such a history-defying feat and what the present generation is doing today to ensure that they play their part in this magnificent venture.
There are three tasks in establishing a free society that hopes to remain free—winning freedom, ordering freedom and sustaining freedom—and each was a prominent consideration to the American founders. Yet such a simple statement is beguiling, and masks a myriad of deeper issues, beginning with the sad fact that as time goes by, free people take freedom more and more for granted. Then, as they progress from the first task to the second and third, they increasingly relax, even though the last task raises the stiffest challenge of all, a challenge that stares every generation of free people in the eye: Are we sustaining the freedom of which we are fortunate to be heirs?
The third task of establishing a free republic is both the hardest and the least discussed today: sustaining freedom. This is perhaps surprising because, as Montesquieu noted, “states have the same object in general, which is to maintain themselves.” Often the sole nod to the place this occupied in the thinking of the founders is a passing reference to Benjamin Franklin’s celebrated words as he came out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and its four months of secret deliberations. Asked by a certain Mrs. Powel what kind of government they had bestowed on the country, he replied, “A republic, Madam—if you can keep it.”
The revolutionaries had won freedom. Then they had ordered the freedom they had won. But freedom was still not ensured. The challenge from then on was to sustain freedom—almost a dare, most certainly a duty, and one that is fraught with many dangers. As Thomas Paine wrote, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”
Needless to say, Franklin’s and Paine’s voices were not alone at the time. The magnificent simplicity of Captain Preston’s “always free, free always” could be matched by others in the Revolutionary War— for example, General Nathaniel Greene in his impassioned letter to Samuel Ward as the colonies shifted from fighting for freedom to fighting for “independency”:
Heaven hath decreed that tottering empire Britain to irretrievable ruin and thanks to God, since Providence hath so determined, America must raise an empire of permanent du- ration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and sup- ported by her own patriotic sons.
Burke argued to the English that, like property, liberty was a “patrimony” and a “pedigree of rights” handed down from generation to generation, a legacy that was always in need of transmission and always capable of improvement: “The people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement.”
James Madison’s final “advice to my country” was that above all “the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.” More than fifty years after the revolution, a twenty-eight-year-old Abraham Lincoln was invited to address the Young Men’s Lyceum in Spring- field, Illinois. He took as his topic for the evening “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions”—a remarkable testimony both to Lincoln and to the continuing power of this concern to assess our “account running” half a century after the revolutionary generation—in order to keep it running.
Far from a fleeting thought, this theme became stronger still when Lincoln ran for the presidency as the Civil War loomed. In his address to the Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 30, 1859, he finished with the story of the ancient eastern monarch’s search for a sentence that was “true and appropriate in all times and all situations.” What his wise men presented to him was, “And this too shall pass away.”
“How much it expresses!” Lincoln said. “How chastening in the hour of pride. . . . And yet let us hope that it is not quite true.” Let us hope rather that “we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which while the earth endures shall not pass away.”
Today, such a statement of hope, staked out in the very jaws of mortality, would be rare, if not inconceivable. As I said earlier, John W. Gardner raised the question of an “ever-renewing society” and called for “a Department of Continuous Renewal,” but his discussion has not been joined. “How can we design a system that will continuously reform (i.e., renew) itself,” he asked, “beginning with presently specifiable ills and moving on to ills that we cannot now foresee.”
Yet current American confidence smacks of the cocksure and the complacent rather than realism, and it relies on the capacity of public relations to conjure up reality through branding and image make- overs. So Americans trust in endlessly recycled slogans such as “renewing the American dream,” “restoring the American promise,” “the best is yet to be” and “America’s future will always be greater than her past”—as if saying so could make it so. And it is striking how the notion of sustainability has become common in such fields as economic growth and development, and in relations with the environment, yet few Americans think about sustainable freedom.
Perhaps this is not surprising. Americans have always shown a strain of resistance to the idea of the open-endedness of the American experiment and the vulnerability of American freedom. Yet the challenge of open-endedness at the heart of the American experiment cannot be shuffled off so easily, for it is far earlier and stronger even than the framers. It is ultimately rooted in a realistic reading of history and in both the biblical and the classical views of the world that shaped Western civilization, not to speak of a tragic view of life.
The clearly Christian notes in this challenge to choice and open-endedness can be heard out in the Atlantic on the decks of the Arbella even before the colonists landed at Massachusetts Bay. But those notes look back millennia to the story of the Jewish people. John Winthrop’s famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” was built on the precedent of the great challenge of Moses to the Jews in Deuteronomy. One way forward, Moses declared, leads to life, to health and to blessing; the other way to death, to sickness and to a curse. The choice had consequences, but the choice was theirs. Destiny was not determinism.
So Winthrop also urges his fellow adventurers approaching New England that they could carry out “the cause between God and us,” enter into “the covenant,” take up “the commission” and experience success—or they could turn aside to their own ends and condemn themselves to be a “shipwreck.” They could be “a city upon a hill” or “shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
There is choice, there is challenge, and there are consequences. There are always two ways things can go—advance or decline—and there are always two levels at which to watch their condition. As Montesquieu and Tocqueville both pointed out, freedom may be maintained at the level of the Constitution but still be lost at the level of the citizens.
Liberty is therefore a marathon and not a sprint, and the task of freedom requires vigilance and perseverance if freedom is to be sustained. If the revolution’s winning of freedom was a matter of eight years and the Constitution’s ordering of freedom was completed in thirteen years, the challenge of sustaining freedom is the task of centuries and countless generations, including our own.