The ICAS Lectures


American Values and Good Citizenship

John Edward Hilboldt

August 13, 2016 Saturday 6:00 PM - 8:45 PM
George's at Johnson Center
George Mason University
Fairfax Virginia

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: John Edward Hilboldt

American Values and Good Citizenship

John Edward Hilboldt
Director, Lectures & Seminars
The Heritage Foundation
August 13, 2016

[Note: The text of the first five pages of these remarks is taken in its entirety from The Heritage Foundation booklet, "What Is the Role of the People?," authored by Dr. Edwin J. Feulner and published as part of Heritage’s Understanding America booklet series.]

The United States is exceptional because of its universal founding principles.

At the heart of these principles is the belief that people are free by nature and possess inherent rights.

The use each of us makes of these rights will naturally be different, and the outcomes of those choices will naturally differ, too. But the choice remains ours.

Freedom is thus inextricably bound up with living our lives as we see fit. This is self-government in the truest sense of the term.

We the People need not slavishly defer to experts. We can be trusted to govern ourselves.

That is why government must remain limited: We the People have given it only limited powers, as described in the Constitution. When government takes more than we have given it, it makes our choices meaningless.

At worst, unlimited government is tyrannical. At best, it imposes a dull uniformity that crushes true diversity and saps the independent spirit of the people.

The Founders believed that a crucial problem was to avoid creating a government that could be dominated by a single faction. That faction might be a minority, or it might even be a majority. But no matter its size, it would inevitably seek to promote its own narrow interests at the expense of the liberties of the people.

One purpose of the Constitution’s checks and balances, one reason why it divides and limits power, is to restrain the ambition of the powerful, and – in the words of the Constitution – to ensure that government genuinely promotes "the general Welfare."

As the federal government has grown over the past century, the business of government has increasingly become taking from Paul to benefit Peter, and then borrowing from Peter to pay off Paul.

What the supporters of big government call the general welfare is merely the artful distribution of favors to particular factions.

The federal government is not supposed to be the most important institution in America. In securing the general welfare, it is supposed to do only those things that are provided for in the Constitution.

It must, for example, provide for the common defense and regulate our relations with foreign nations.

It must respect our right to enjoy the fruits of our labor by taxing lightly, and defend the freedom of the marketplace by ensuring the rule of law.

And it must remember that the family and religion are where we learn virtue – and that without virtue, government cannot be both limited and free.

As John Adams stated: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

In the United States, government requires not merely the consent of the governed. It rests ultimately on the ability of the people to govern themselves.

The first role – the first duty – of the people is to ensure that they remain virtuous and free.

* * * * *

That is why the American system is based on the rights of the individual, but not on individualism.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that "it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor," he captured a vital truth of American freedom. The Founders placed great hopes in the Constitution, but they knew that no paper constraints could preserve liberty.

That duty rested ultimately with the American people. The role of the Constitution was to restrain and to check, and – as Washington wrote – to "raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair."

The words of the Declaration, the lives of the Founders, and the design of the Constitution can inspire, but on their own they cannot preserve the American republic.

Only "We the People," steeped in the principles that inspired the Founders and animated the Declaration, can do that.

And, America’s virtues do not appear out of thin air. They are not the result of individuals living in isolation. They are social virtues. They are nurtured in families, sustained in religious congregations, and fostered in the everyday interactions of work, hobbies, and life.

Long before the Declaration, foreign observers were surprised by the number and vigor of America’s social institutions, and by the everyday democracy of American marriage, work, and society.

Far more than any other nation in the world, Americans recognized each other as social and thus as political equals. That is why the traditional American virtue of self-reliance is so vital, and why the growth of government is so dangerous: Self-reliance means we have an obligation to try not to impose financially on our equals. Big government does not see citizens who provide for themselves and help their fellows; it sees subjects whom it must tax and on whom it must spend.

The wish of the Founders was not for us to live as isolated individuals. Nor was it to insulate government from religion and civil society. On the contrary, it was to insulate religion and civil society from the government, to prevent government from weakening and corrupting it.

The Founders believed that, if the sources of civic virtue remained free and strong, the American people would remain capable of self-government. There is no magic in the American people that can save them if they do not save themselves. That is why President Reagan said, in his famous speech on the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, that "freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."

As Americans, we have always an obligation to pass the inheritance of freedom on, unimpaired, to the next generation. That is the second duty of the people.

* * * * *

Today, everyone says they are in favor of civil society. But not everyone understands what it means. When statists speak of civil society, it often implies that they see civil society as the government’s agent, paid by the government to do the work that the government has not yet taken over.

In the realm of diplomacy, civil society can be a code word for self-nominated organizations that claim to speak for the people of the world and assert a moral authority greater than democratically elected governments.

Abroad, the United States needs to stand up for the legitimacy of sovereign democracies, which are the only governments that allow genuine civil society to flourish. At home, Americans should not be taken in by the argument that civil society needs to be directed by the state in order to do good works.

That is just another smokescreen that weakens civil society, conceals the hand of big government, and ultimately impoverishes us all, both spiritually and financially.

This smokescreen rests on the deep contempt that some groups have shown for civil society since the 1960s, when they came to the conclusion that the job of the government was to liberate us from our oppressive private lives.

Churches, charities, or institutions like The Heritage Foundation are part of civil society, and all can do good work.

But our bowling clubs, our Scout troops, and our farm stands are equally part of civil society. Just because an institution is social does not mean it is everyone’s business.

On the contrary: The power of civil society stems from the fact that so much of it is personal, not intended to remedy any broader problem.

Government must be built on respect for the virtues that this civil society fosters, or it will ultimately destroy civil society. The lesson of history from Europe is that as their governments have expanded, their charities, churches, and social institutions have shrunk.

The United States is an island of stability in a world of turmoil. We have the same Constitution today that we had over 200 years ago. Our concern to protect America from its enemies abroad, and to promote American leadership in the world, must never cause us to forget that our power to lead flows from our unique combination of a powerful but limited government with a dynamic and self-reliant society.

When we see others abroad who share that vision, and who are struggling against tyranny, we should give them our friendship. When we see a tyranny fall, we should applaud cautiously, knowing that democracy is created from the bottom up, not the top down. Our role in the world flows from what makes us exceptional: to defend and promote the universal principles on which the American people founded their government.

* * * * *

That is why the true role of "We the People" is to ensure that both they and their government stay faithful to those principles.

This is partly a job for the free press and the ballot box.

But we will not be able to speak and vote in support of America’s founding principles if we forget what those principles are.

In his Farewell Address from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989, President Reagan called on the nation to foster "informed patriotism." President Reagan believed that, after the end of the Cold War, the spirit of patriotism was in the air; but he thought that was not good enough.

For him, patriotism had to be "well-grounded" in popular culture, and to recognize always that "America is freedom … and freedom is special and rare." American freedom began with the American memory, and if that was not preserved, he warned, the ultimate result would be the erosion of the American spirit.

"All great change in America," he said, "begins at the dinner table … And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do."

Reagan was right: We must understand our Constitution if we are to defend what we have achieved under it, and we must know our history if we are to value the ordered liberty the Founders bequeathed to us.

We must be free by governing ourselves, preserve our freedom for the next generation, and stand for freedom at home and abroad.

"We the People" created this republic, and "We the People" must preserve it.

* * * * *

In order to preserve this republic, our citizenship requires us to:

Question and Challenge

To say government is a necessary institution is not to say it is the morally primary one.

It cannot be the sole organizing force in society. It cannot be our provider, our parent, our guardian. It cannot do the things that the Utopians once imagined it might do.

We must not allow it to do the things the modern fans of Marx’s evil rant would still like it to do. We must not even allow it to perform the wish-list litany of tasks the most recent State of the Union address suggested it undertake.

Become Engaged and Be Active

As citizens of a self-governing society, one of our callings is to steward the rights and responsibilities of our political order.

Sitting on the sidelines is not an option.

Some are called to public policy; some have an avocational passion for politics proper. But all are called to basic stewardship of the gift of political freedom and the goal of true human flourishing….

…Many people simply keep their distance from politics.

But disengagement is not appropriate. The exercise of citizenship is a matter of stewardship. Citizenship is a calling.

In a free society, citizenship involves a wide range of decisions that require much reflection.

Good stewardship in this case requires at least a basic understanding of civics and issues of debate…

Politics is the way we figure out how to meet every-day needs, solve problems, and sort out our differences. It’s about harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what’s worth pursuing as a society.

We work out issues in all kinds of forums – from family room to boardroom to congressional hearing room, each with its own authority structure, each exercising a variety of roles and responsibilities.

Live for your Country

You live for your country when you say to some young person, "Don’t do drugs; it will ruin your life."

You live for your country when you raise your family and say, "I really want my children to grow up in a healthy, nurtured, disciplined way."

You live for your country when you find a neighbor who can’t read and spend the extra time helping him.

You live for your country when you say, "I want to help others, and I’ll take part of my time and part of my energy and I will go out and live for my country."

You live for your country when you say, "I’ll go to work every day."

Never Give In

Failure is not an option. Learn from it. Somebody once said of Gen. George Washington that he made many mistakes once, but they had never found him to make a mistake twice.

* * * * *

To be a good citizen, we need to understand our founding principles and make sure that they are sufficiently fixed in our minds to give us genuine guidance, to actually teach us something…

We need to have a ready sense of connection to the past, a reflex for looking backward…

As the motto carved above the entrance to our National Archives states, we must truly understand that "the past is prologue."

We are the legacy of the free people who have gone before us, on whose shoulders we now stand.

Our children and their children are destined to stand on our shoulders and we must not fail them. Their liberty and freedom depend upon us.

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