March 29, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
In recent weeks, the course of human events—from Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria—reminds Americans once again that tyranny is common in the world, that it is hard to remove, and that it is even harder to replace it with freedom and good government. We Americans, of every political stripe, generally like to consider ourselves enemies of tyranny and friends of freedom in the world. Of course, we have lots of debates among ourselves (and with others) about what this means and what this requires of American foreign policy. These debates have been rekindled lately, and I take this occasion to recollect that America came into existence by overthrowing a tyranny and that we have had our own struggles replacing it with freedom and good government.
Our success in these struggles—to the extent that we have met with success—is due to moral and political habits and dispositions that arise from principles that must be learned. These principles and dispositions are the most essential conditions of freedom. Everything else is secondary. Without them, you might exchange an unpopular for a popular tyranny, an incompetent and destitute tyranny for a competent and wealthy one. But you will never have free government.
America began its experiment in freedom with what has become and will forever remain the most characteristic and defining American affirmation: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” The truth of human equality and liberty was asserted against all tyrannies—whether of race, class, or religion, one, few, or many.
That men throughout history tyrannized one another in an infinite variety of ways was not proof to the American founders that human beings do not possess equal rights by nature—rather it was proof of how rare and difficult a thing it is to secure them. It is proof of the philosophic rigor, the moral discipline, the political sagacity, and the beneficence of opportunity that are required for reflection and free choice to prevail over ignorance, prejudice, accident, and force.
Proclaiming that all men everywhere and at all times possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American founders undertook the historic effort to secure these rights, so far as they thought they could then be secured, to a small people at a particular place and time. They were acutely conscious of the limits of their ability to secure these rights. When they were able to establish a “more perfect union” they understood full well how far from perfection they remained. It was all the new republic could do in the first century of its existence to keep the American experiment in freedom from failing miserably at home while other less fortunate experiments struggled to give birth to freedom in other parts of the world.
In the course of its history, the American people have many times fallen beneath the high standards they set for themselves at the beginning. They have strayed from those principles, and they have forgotten them, and become confused about them, and allowed misunderstood self-interest to obscure them. Our own experience has confirmed for us that democracy requires more of its citizens than any other form of government and that it is no accident that history provides so few examples of successful and enduring democracies. We count our blessings—the blessings of liberty—when we reflect with John Adams, “how few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children,” and how few have chosen well.
The “genius” of the American people at the time of the American revolution and founding made it both possible and necessary to establish a country based on the republican principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson said in explaining the genesis of the Declaration, the ideas expressed in it were “the common sense of the subject” in America. He was merely expressing “the American mind.” It was only because the American people had learned to embrace republican principles that it was possible to establish an American republic. I mentioned in an earlier letter the American founders’ “honorable determination . . . to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” This was a determination, James Madison affirmed, “which animates every votary of freedom.” But the founders understood that any people that wished to be free, including the Americans, would have to demonstrate this capacity for themselves, and continue to demonstrate it each generation.
As the Declaration of Independence proclaimed, the just powers of government are derived from “the consent of the governed.” Only a people prepared to consent to a free government are capable of establishing one; and once they have established it, as Ben Franklin never ceases to remind us, they will need to have what it takes to “keep it.” At the least, this means a people must be prepared to recognize their own humanity and that of their fellow citizens; they will neither aspire to be masters nor submit to be slaves; they must be prepared to rule and be ruled in turn and to abide by the laws they claim the right to make for themselves.
We know from our own American case, even with all the natural and historical advantages we have had, that it is not easy to achieve or to keep and pass on these capacities for self government. Experience and common sense tell us that these capacities are going to be even harder to achieve without the great advantages we have had. So let us be patient and moderate in our expectations from those who may face great disadvantages.