Snell: How to be an American: The lost art of citizenship


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To claim your rights, you must first understand them. Learn the difference between rights and privileges, the equality of rights to all people and the true definitions of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Barry Snell

Wednesday past I asked the question: Do you know how to be an American?

Now we have to answer.

The Declaration of Independence set out publicly, to the entire world, why the colonies were doing the then-unthinkable: rejecting the alleged divine right of a king and establishing a system of self-governance based on the rights of the individual. In writing the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson embedded within its prose the philosophical underpinnings of the new nation.

Jefferson asserted to the universe in the Declaration, thus writing himself into eternity when he said, “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.”

Jefferson mentions four key things in that most famous sentence: Rights, Life, Liberty and Happiness. So let’s start there.

Rights are something that cannot be taken away. A right is something you’re born with and have by virtue of being alive. A right is not granted by any person or government; you are born with them, and you will die with them, and they cannot be taken away — though you can give them up! This latter problem we will address together later as our conversation evolves.

For now, here’s two key principles: First, the only just restriction of one’s rights exists where one’s rights collide with those of another. In other words, your rights are equal to everyone else’s and can never exceed the rights of others. For example, you have the right to listen to music as loud as you like, but I also have the right to peace and quiet too.

Second, groups don’t have rights, only individuals do. The government has no rights; the police have no rights; special interest groups have no rights. Only the individual.

The confusion that surrounds rights usually deals with privileges. Do you have to ask permission, pay a fee or get a license or permit to do it? If so it’s not a right, it’s a privilege. But wait, you might think, what about protest permits or gun licenses? Now you’re thinking like an American, though we’ll talk about that in a future column too.

With respect to Life, you have but one of them, and that life is special. That life makes you an individual, separate and unique from all other individuals. But without life, you have no rights, no liberty, no nothing. This is why murder is such a depraved act, as it deprives you of everything; it is the ultimate denial of rights.

Liberty now, well that’s a bit tougher. Liberty has been distilled to the pithy definition of “doing whatever the hell you want.” To men of the Age of Enlightenment, though, Liberty meant something completely different. Exactly 27 years ago last Friday, Terry Anderson, a young man who attended Iowa State just like you do, learned what the Founders meant by Liberty.

In some of the opening moves of what we now call the “Global War on Terror,” Terry Anderson was grabbed off the streets of Beirut by Hezbollah terrorists, and held captive for seven years. In his filthy Lebanese cell, he had a radio which allowed him to hear international broadcasts from the station Voice of America, transmitting from Ohio.

One of the Voice of America programs lead with a recording of the Campanile playing “The Bells of Iowa State.” Anderson tuned into this broadcast every chance he got, and in an interview after his release, he said hearing the Campanile reminded him of home and gave him hope, that those bells of Iowa State set him free.

Liberty is an existential, yet psychological, condition that must first exist in the mind. “Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things,” Jefferson wrote in a letter.

Liberty is an attitude first, and a matter of practice second. In its physical manifestation, Liberty as the Founders understood it was also a public thing. It is for this reason that your rights are protected by the Constitution: so that you may act with one each other. The sublime beauty of the Constitution is not that it created some fancy new style of government, but that it created a space in which citizens could interact and achieve common goals, whatever those goals may be.

This ability to act — to be political in the classical sense — is Liberty.

Happiness, like Liberty, is also a strange concept to the modern American. Today we take “happiness” to mean a state of being pleased or doing what pleases us, such as making a lot of money, buying a big TV, or going to a football game.

Happiness meant something radically different during the revolution though. The word “happiness” is related to the word “happenstance,” which is connected to being lucky. Even now, you can find “happiness” defined as having good fortune. In 1776, Happiness was actually about the opportunity to create one’s own opportunities and the freedom to enjoy the benefits.

Generating luck or good fortune for ourselves involves taking risks. That ability to try something, to fail and then to try something else, is Happiness. As Bobby Kennedy said, “Long ago the Greeks defined happiness as the ‘exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.’”

These concepts, which seem abstract to the modern American mind today, form the crux of American philosophy: You are a unique individual, and you matter. You were born with rights that cannot be taken away. You are free to act with other Americans and solve problems or do great things together. You have the ability to make opportunities for yourself and reap the rewards of your labor.

So much has been written about and so much blood shed over these principles. Consider for awhile what their implications are and see if you can identify conflicts with our modern reality. Next week we’ll get into some of the problems interfering with our ability to be Americans, then on to the how-to.

These principles are the Founders’ legacy to you, passed down from a time spanning four centuries. They are your birthright. Claim them!