In difficult times, it is sometimes helpful to think back.
Virginia has given so much to this nation — from Jamestown to the first definitions of our rights — that it can be challenging to single out accomplishments as the greatest. Yet there are two that define who we want to be and how we want to pursue that vision — and are so fundamental that without them, we are a different nation. Both were efforts led by Virginians.
What makes America great is not economic power or military power. It is a clear and noble vision of who we want to be. Thomas Jefferson defined it 244 years ago. “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.” Those words inspired the patriots who fought for our independence so long ago and have inspired every generation since.
To be clear, it does not define who they were or who we are. It defines who we want to be, who we are trying to be. We fall short — and we get up determined to do better.
That vision gives us purpose. It is the reason those of us who wear the uniform, or have worn the uniform, serve. We do not go in harm’s way in return for salary or training or educational benefits. We may value those things, but we are willing to sacrifice, if necessary, because we serve a higher calling. “We hold these truths….” That sentence defines the soul of our nation.
It is that vision which inspired Ronald Reagan’s reference to the nation as “the shining city on the hill” and call for Americans to come together to support and protect our unalienable rights.
The other legacy: Though our founding fathers had a vision to inspire them, translating that into a system of government was not easy. The Articles of Confederation were a first attempt — an imperfect one. Its shortcomings led our founders to reach higher.
Many people played a role in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, but one among them helped pinpoint the need for, define the essence of and secure the ratification of the Constitution — so much that he became known as “the Father of the Constitution.” And that was another Virginian: James Madison.
There is so much to love about the Constitution — the careful separation of powers, checks and balances, due process, and equal protection under the law all high among them. But many scholars agree that the first three words are “the most important three words in our nation’s history.” The Constitution begins “We the People….” All else that is great derives from that.
“We hold these truths” and “We the People” — the how and who of America. Abraham Lincoln recognized their importance in perhaps the greatest speech ever given — the Gettysburg Address. He began by speaking of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and closed with a call to increased devotion that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
In the wake of a highly contentious election, it might not seem instinctive to focus on such thoughts. We are divided and angry in ways not seen in our memory. Some people doubt we can come together. But our nation’s memory is longer. We have been divided before. Lincoln spoke at a time when “We hold these truths” and “We the People” were being severely tested.
The questions, then and now, are fundamental. Are all of us created equal? Are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or do we only care about those who agree with us? Is it we the people? Or is it we the powerful?
Lincoln answered with a focus on the noble visions of our Founding Fathers, led by Jefferson and Madison. With his inspiring words he laid the path to reconciliation based on their inspiring ideas. It was not easy then and it will not be easy now, but if we lift our eyes from the squabble up to Reagan’s shining city — to what really makes America great — it is possible. By focusing on where we’re trying to go, we can chart paths that merge along the way.
It is our time, and our responsibility, to affirm “We hold these truths” still defines who we want to be and “We the People” still defines how we want to be. And in doing so we start to come together.
Maj. Gen. (Ret.) John Brooks graduated from Roanoke College in 1970 and served five Air Force assignments in Virginia. He and his family have lived in Virginia since he retired from the Air Force 20 years ago; they currently reside in Northern Virginia.
Information link: https://www.thoughtco.com/preamble-to-the-us-constitution-3322393
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