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Memorial Day reflections: What we owe to those who “gave their lives that that nation might live”

There’s a lot to love about America. Even if the list was only college football and barbecue – that’s a pretty solid list. But fortunately, it’s longer than that. We’re also stewards of an experiment in constitutional self-governance for which many of our fellow Americans have sacrificed everything.

I recently volunteered to chaperone my child’s sixth grade class field trip to Gettysburg. The trip took place just a few days before Memorial Day weekend, which only made an already-powerful occasion more somber.

As I stood on a watchtower with a few dozen sixth graders overlooking the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, which is itself the bloodiest war in American history, I thought of those who have died for our country – and the ideals they fought for.

Just a few miles east, in Philadelphia, the Revolutionary War began in earnest with the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration demonstrated that this new nation was different.

Our founders were advocating not just for the independence of the physical places – like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, or North Carolina – from the crown.

The Declaration made the American revolution one about ideas, too – including the radical belief that “all men are created equal” and endowed with inalienable rights.

Our Constitution later enshrined those ideals of equality and individual rights into our law. It also created important safeguards, the checks and balances that help to protect these rights.

But one thing that Memorial Day – and a battlefield in Gettysburg – should remind us is how the Constitution begins: “We the people …”

The ultimate protection of our liberties and our Constitution lies with the people.

For some, like thousands of those who died at Gettysburg, that means the ultimate sacrifice. For the rest of us, it means – at the very least – a commitment to the Constitution and the experiment in self-governance that it affords us. In short, “civic virtue.”

The National Constitution Center uses the following definition for “civic virtue”:

The character of a good participant in a system of government – the personal qualities associated with the effective functioning of the civil and political order or the preservation of its values and principles.

Running for office, voting, serving on a jury. All of these may be examples of “civic virtue.” But it also includes the less “official” acts that ensure the American experiment can thrive, like volunteering, giving, and other ways of participating in one’s local community and passing on the values that animate that virtue to the next generation.

The founders thought civic virtue was critical for self-government, and French historian and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the early years of our country, believed Americans possessed a unique measure of civic virtue compared to the nations that had come before it that gave him hope for the new nation’s prospects.

The good news is that – despite all the challenges we face – there’s plenty of reasons to think that civic virtue is still in our DNA.

Five Reasons for Americans to Have Optimism:

  1. We share a belief in core values. Look at research by the nonpartisan think tank Populace, which says the #1 priority for Americans – across age, sex, religion, and race – is commitment to individual rights.
  2. We help those in need. The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) World Giving Index has consistently ranked Americans as among the most generous in the world. And faith communities in America continue to work to help the vulnerable and needy – even when the government tries to stop them.
  3. We welcome experimentation, innovation, and discovery. Americans – not just their government – have driven technological advances that have reduced global hunger, saved lives, and allowed millions to pursue happiness with the hope of actually obtaining it.
  4. America produces and attracts the boldest, bravest, and brightest. The United States still has the highest number of international migrants out of any country – because people around the world still believe in the promise of America. Meanwhile, many Europeans don’t have air conditioning, dryers, or – most importantly – free speech protections. Also, not only does the average American today lead a more lavish life than kings and queens in previous centuries (thanks to technological advances and medicine), a literal British prince decided this year that he’d rather live in the United States as a citizen than in the United Kingdom as a prince. Somewhere, I hear the proud cry of a bald eagle… Take that, King George III!
  5. The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to think, speak, and worship as they want. While other countries have official state religions or punish those deemed to practice the “wrong” religion, America protects religious liberty and offers Americans a way to fight back against the government itself when it encroaches on First Amendment freedoms.

Not to mention this summer we’ll almost certainly dominate the Olympics yet again, winning more gold medals than other countries. And other than the ‘93 Blue Jays, the rest of the world isn’t even showing up in the World Series.

What does it mean to be an American? The answers are probably as diverse as our fellow Americans. But the stories emanate from these shared principles.

This doesn’t mean that America doesn’t have its challenges. But our Constitution gives us the tools to address those challenges – through the ballot box and holding our elected officials accountable for their decisions on our behalf.

It’s also up to the American people to maintain the Constitution itself and its promise of self-governance to the next generation. The actual government we have has strayed far away from the founding ideals of separated and enumerated powers, federalism, and individual liberty in our Constitution.

But that’s not a reason to give up on those founding ideals.

It’s a reason to redouble efforts to restore constitutionally limited government.

Yes, it’s hard. Establishing a unique system of government intended to reign in the flaws in human beings that have repeatedly produced tyranny throughout human history – and then maintaining that system – is challenging.

But when Benjamin Franklin said we have “A Republic, if you can keep it,” he wasn’t talking to politicians. He was talking to one Philadelphia woman and the crowd she was a part of. A Republic, if you can keep it. If we can keep it.

Americans are deeply divided. But our divisions cannot blind us to the blessings we enjoy as a result of our Constitution and those who fought to defend it. We owe it to those who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “gave their lives that that nation might live.”

I hope you had a peaceful and meaningful Memorial Day. If you’re looking for resources to more deeply honor Memorial Day, the Bill of Rights Institute has put together a list that honors our fallen veterans from throughout history.


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