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The Most Important Thing

The Most Important Thing

March 17th, 2011 // 1:15 am @

My oldest daughter asked me recently, “What is the most important thing Americans need to know right now about freedom?”

I didn’t even have to think about the answer, it is so clear to me.

My purpose here is to share the single most important thing the people need to know about freedom.

I have shared this idea before, but since it is the most important thing, in my opinion, it bears repeating.

On many occasions I have asked advanced graduate students or executives to diagram the American government model which established unprecedented levels of freedom and prosperity to people from all backgrounds, classes and views.

They always do it in the wrong order, and they get the most important part wrong.

Specifically, they start by diagramming three branches of government, a judicial and an executive and a bicameral legislature, and then they sit down.

They think they’ve done the assignment.

When I ask, “What about the rest?” they are stumped for a few seconds.

Then some of them have an epiphany and quickly return to the white board to diagram the same thing at the state level.

This time they are sure they are done.

“What level of government came first in the American colonies?” I ask. After some debate, they agree that many towns, cities, counties and local governments were established, most with written constitutions, for over two centuries before the U.S. Constitution and many decades before the state governments and constitutions.

“So, diagram the founding model of local government,” I say.

They then set out to diagram a copy of the three-branch U.S. Constitutional model.


This sad deficit of knowledge indicates at least one thing: Americans who have learned about our constitutional model have tended to learn it largely by rote, without truly understanding the foundational principles of freedom.

We know about the three branches, the checks and balances, and we consider this the American political legacy.

But few Americans today understand the principles and deeper concepts behind the three branches, checks and balances.

The first constitutions and governments in America were local, and there were hundreds of them.

These documents were the basis of later state constitutions, and they were also the models in which early Americans learned to actively govern themselves.

Without them, the state constitutions could never have been written. Without these local and state constitutions, the U.S. Constitution would have been very, very different.

In short, these local constitutions and governments were, and are, the basis of American freedoms and the whole system.

The surprising thing, at least to many moderns, is that these local constitutions were very different than the state and federal constitutional model. There were some similarities, but the structure was drastically different.

The principles of freedom are applied differently to be effective at local and tribal levels.

A society that doesn’t understand this is unlikely to stay free. Indeed, history is exact on this point.

Another surprise is that nearly all the early townships and cities in the Americas adopted a very similar constitutional structure.

They were amazingly alike. This is because they are designed to apply the best principles of freedom to the local and tribal levels.

And there is more.

This similar model was followed by the Iroquois League as well, and by several other First Nation tribal governments.

Many people have heard this, but few can explain the details of how local free governments were established.

This same model of free local/tribal government shows up in tribes throughout Central and South America, Oceana, Africa, Asia and the historic Germanic tribes including the Anglo Saxons.

Indeed, it is found in the Bible as followed by the Tribes of Israel. This is where the American founders said they found it

The most accurate way, then, to diagram the American governmental system is to diagram the local system correctly, then the state and federal levels with their three branches each, separations of power and checks and balances.

But how exactly does one diagram the local level?

The basics are as follows: The true freedom system includes establishing as the most basic unit of society—above the family—small government councils that are small enough to include all adults in the decision-making meetings for major choices.

This system is clearly described in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Volume 1, Chapter 5,[i] and in Liberty Fund’s Colonial Origins of the American Constitutions.

It is also portrayed in the classic television series Little House on the Prairie and in many books like Moody’s Little Britches, Stratton-Porter’s Laddie and James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

In fact, if you know to look for it, it shows up throughout much of human history.

These adult town, city or tribal councils truly establish and maintain freedom by including in the most local and foundational decisions the voices and votes of all the adult citizenry.

These councils make decisions by majority vote after open discussion. They also appoint mayors/chiefs, law enforcement leaders, judges and other personnel.

All of these officials report directly to the full council of all adults and can be removed by the council.

Where representative houses and offices are much more effective at the larger state and national levels, the whole system breaks down if the regular citizens aren’t actively involved in governance at the most local levels.

In this model, every adult citizen is officially a government official, with the result that all citizens study the government system, their role in it, the issues and laws and cases, and think like leaders.

They learn leadership by leading.

Without this participatory government system at the local levels, as history has shown, freedom is eventually lost in all societies.

Once again, the most successful tribes, communities and even nations throughout history have adopted this model of local governance which includes all citizens in the basic local decision making.

The result, in every society on record,[ii] has always been increased freedom and prosperity.

No free society in recorded history has maintained its great freedom once this system eroded.

Tocqueville called this system of local citizen governance “the” most important piece of America’s freedom model.[iii]

Indeed, the U.S. Constitution is what it is because of the understanding the American people gained from long participation in local government councils.

These were the basis of state constitutions and the federal Constitution. If we don’t understand the local councils, we don’t understand the Constitution or freedom.

Today we need a citizenship that truly understands freedom, not just patriotic, loyal or highly professional people. This is the most important thing modern Americans can know if we want to maintain our freedom and widespread prosperity.


[i] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (from the Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen, edited by Phillips Bradley, and published by Alfred A. Knopf).

[ii] See the writings of Arnold Toynbee and the multi-volume writings of Will & Ariel Durant.

[iii] Op cit., Tocqueville.

Category : Community &Culture &Government &Liberty &Tribes

6 Comments → “The Most Important Thing”

  1. Blake Elliott

    13 years ago

    Yes, this is important; I’ve been thinking about this very thing for a little while now. I should get more involved in local governance. Maybe it’s time for me to start reading Tocqueville and reread Deuteronomy 1. This was an impessive article, thank you!

  2. Oliver DeMille

    13 years ago

    Thanks, Blake. We can feel overwhelmed by the scale of federal and international problems. But at the root of everything is individual choice, and community self-determination. As we set our homes and communities in order, how can that not change everything else over time?

  3. Dan Trusty

    12 years ago

    Thanks for this excellent and inspiring article. Like Blake I feel the need to get more involved. But it feels so small and distant from the National level. How do we inspire thousands of others to do the same (get involved) to increase the level of change? It seems that this would need to take place quickly to have an effect.

  4. Oliver DeMille

    12 years ago

    Dan, I would urge you to read, “Reweaving the Fabric of Freedom.” It gives suggests a 3-leveled approach where readers can self-select their role an then consider suggestions on what to do to make a difference. You can download it here: http://www.thesocialleader.com/2010/12/free-download-reweaving-fabric-freedom/

  5. Oliver DeMille

    12 years ago

    The other thing I would say is that, in keeping with the message of this article, the most powerful way to make a difference is right in your own neighborhood. In my book FreedomShift, I describe the power of community.

    We can work in vain to change Washington, because the power structure is so ingrained, so well-funded, so widely accepted as the entrenched status quo. But work with your own neighbors to govern your community well, to establish a true “tribal council” of all the adults in the community to elect the right people, to opt out of pork barrel projects that abridge your rights or freedoms, to defy, by vote, federal and state abridgements of your prerogatives that are not constitutional, and watch how (with the help of others in communities across the land), in less than a decade we will have effected a bottom up revolution, peaceful and principled.

    Indeed, this is how Washington was empowered in the first place–by the word and consent of the people.

    It’s the same principle as raising a child: if we neglect our role to lead and guide, the child may choose a state of nature that is unruly, self-centered and even destructive. But when we step up and own our role in an inspired and principled fashion, the leadership, order, affection and support that are communicated are valued more than the license that previously defined the child’s life, she acknowledges the parent’s rightful leadership and aspires to merit his or her trust and respect.

    As in this anecdote, so goes unruly, self-centered government. When the people have the moral authority (and not just the constitutional mandate) to lead, they will set all in order over the course of less than a generation.

    And this is the concern I have with the current populist movement. Too often it takes the tone of the unruly child, and many of its activists point to the constitutional mandate as the credential which empowers them. Indeed it does (or should), but without the kind of statesmen’s education that animated and informed the American Founders’ approach, we will be left with yet another crop of populists who do not fully understand how to lead, and who are not armed with the wisdom and understanding on how to apply sound principles to today’s issues.

    A strict constructionist view will never suffice for the complex problems that will continue to challenge our leaders–they must have their own experience in dialoguing with the greats of statescraft (through mentors and classics) in order to rise to the challenge.

    This is why the “idealistic” approach outlined in Reweaving the Fabric of Freedom is the only practical solution that I can foresee.


  6. Karianne

    12 years ago

    I love this article, Oliver! Thank you!

    As I have consistently attended my local council meetings over the last 1 1/2 years, I have found many things that most citizens in my community find objectionable. I gathered a group of citizens who had the time and will to found an organization to provide local accountability and oversight to our local government officials. We focused on serving our community, developing relationships with our local council, mayor and city manager, distributing information to help the citizens be more informed and speaking up in council meetings and directly communicating with our council, mayor and staff when we felt things would be better approached a different way.

    Now two members of our group are running for City Council.

    We can make a difference when we know the principles of good government and we sacrifice our time to help others know and enact them. Here is our website: http://www.syracuseutforum.com/

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