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Jefferson-Madison Debates: What Made America Great? [The “Miracle”]

Jefferson-Madison Debates: What Made America Great? [The “Miracle”]

May 26th, 2018 // 10:17 am @

What Made America Great?

(And What is Making it Less Great Right Now)

[Reviewed: Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg and Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver]

Cleon Skousen called it “The Five Thousand Year Leap,” I’ve called it “The FreedomShift,” and recently Jonah Goldsberg dubbed it “The Miracle.” Specifically, it’s that special arrangement that led to American freedom—the most widespread freedom and prosperity for the most people at any given time in history. What ingredients made it work? What brought us our unprecedented levels of lifestyle and opportunity? And are we headed for more freedom or an era of serious decline in the decades just ahead?

Goldberg outlined key factors that helped create the “Miracle” and bring about modern American greatness.[i] Lose any one of these, and our freedoms decline. Lose a lot, and freedom hangs by a thread. Each of these is vital[ii]:

  • “the individual is sovereign”
  • “our rights come from God, not government”
  • “the fruits of our labors belong to us”
  • no person “should be less than equal before the law because of…faith… class,” ethnicity, etc.
  • merit
  • industriousness
  • innovation
  • contracts
  • rights

This list has been presented in other places, using different words. Skousen outlined the “Miracle” in 28 principles of freedom, and in We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident I showed how freedom is based on 12 crucial natural laws. In “The Four Lost American Ideals” I narrowed the ingredients of what is essentially the “Miracle” down to four:

  • Georgics (hard work, entrepreneurship, ownership of the land and businesses, and free enterprise)
  • Providence (belief in God and higher truths as taught in the Bible, and pursuing our lives in keeping with these beliefs)
  • Liber (a populace that reads and lives by the library of liberty, the great classics of freedom)
  • Public Virtue (the attitude that serving one’s nation and actively overseeing one’s government and keeping it in line with the Constitution, even when this requires personal sacrifice and effort, is an incontrovertible duty for each of us). It is the job of the people, not the Supreme Court, to keep the government limited to the Constitution. The Supreme Court is part of the government, part of the thing that must remain within its limits.

However we outline the specifics, knowing the foundations of freedom is incredibly important. Richard Weaver wrote in 1962: “The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for.”[iii] Goldberg put it this way: “…a majority of Americans, I believe, are ungrateful for what the Miracle has brought us. Sometimes this ingratitude manifests itself as simply taking one’s good fortune for granted. And that is enough to destroy a civilization.”[iv] Especially a free civilization.

“Just as the spoiled children of the wealthy are ungrateful for the opportunities provided by their parents,” Goldberg wrote, “we as a society are ungrateful for our collective inheritance.”[v] It took millennia to attain the “Miracle,” to truly learn, value and implement truths like “our rights come from God, not government,”[vi] contracts allow everyone to enjoy the blessings once legally reserved only for a few elites, or “no man should be less than equal before the law because of his faith or class.”[vii] Making these work in our society cost us, literally, blood, treasure, a lot of hard work, and more blood.

Such principles were worth fighting for. But do we treat them with the respect and value they deserve? In most cases, the current answer is “No.” For example, as Richard Weaver taught: “If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors…it will not long be found at all.”[viii] Weaver’s reference to “rejecting favors” is striking. In his view, the meaning of freedom includes voluntarily rejecting government programs and payments that could bring personal financial benefit—all in the name of liberty. “No thank you, government,” the citizen should say, “I don’t accept charity.”

In Hollywood and modern media this concept is almost extinct. Where it does appear, it is almost always found in a private setting—telling a neighbor or friend that one won’t accept charity. “My government will handle it” is now universally implied. Note that Weaver wasn’t speaking directly to the poor—his message was for the middle and upper classes. Think about it: When was the last time you resisted the loss of freedom by turning down a government program or benefit? By paying your own way, even when the government offered you something “free”?

Free people understand the truth: Government programs are never free. Not one. Weaver wrote about the opposite of the “Miracle”, the specific ingredients that would ruin the recipe of liberty, like large bags of salt in a cupcake batter. Such counterfeits, and destroyers of freedom, include:

1. Centralized government (rather than local, leveled, and limited government)

2. Affluence combined with materialism (and the idea that government can provide prosperity for all who turn their choices over to the state)

3. “The love of comfort” (instead of preferring struggle and hard work, the price of individual liberty)

4. The “homogenization” of government-promoted equality

5. The promise of the “easy” way, provided by government[ix]

Weaver said freedom only lasts among people dedicated to the struggle of rejecting “easy” programs and going one’s own way. This he called “strenuous,” “romantic”, and worthy of men.[x] To pay one’s own way. To turn to hard work and God for help, instead of government. To be an owner of the nation, not a peasant, an inferior, hands held out for more government largess. Again, this was directed to the middle and wealthy classes who enjoy the majority of government programs. Emerson made the same argument, using different terms: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.”[xi] He warns that such society is unworthy: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist…. The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”[xii]

Weaver blamed most of this decline—the popularization of following the “easy” way instead of seeking the hard path in life, and even teaching our youth to do the same—on our blind faith in “institutions”. Emerson called them “dead institutions.” Government, bureaucracy, media, academia, the network of corporations, and experts became our new god; with painful results. Weaver noted that we stopped seeing life as a time to struggle, to improve our souls, serve others, and qualify for Heaven, and replaced this great human quest with something far more mediocre: the goal of simply making a living and enjoying today’s entertainment.[xiii]

There is nothing wrong with finding enjoyments in life, but Weaver points out that we err when making a living (bread) and seeking entertainment (circuses) tempt us to surrender more and more of our freedoms to government, rather than embracing the difficulties of freedom, of experiencing a lot more liberty but having to work much harder to get by. C.S. Lewis argued that this shift has created a society of “men without chests.”[xiv]

Weaver warned that this search for “easier,” for increased fun and comfort purchased at the price of reduced freedom was becoming our national creed, our modern religion. Here is what it looks like seventy years after his warning:

  • Youth feel entitled (“parents will handle it”)
  • Adults feel entitled (“the government will take care of whatever you can’t”)
  • Students focus on doing well in school because they are told it will benefit future employment rather than great learning or preparation for one’s life purpose (the goal of great learning is rarely mentioned, and then mostly by comedians)
  • Adults focus on success and the bottom line (goodness and service to others is too often an afterthought)
  • People work every day for pay and promotion (spending one’s life seeking to greatly improve the world has become quaint, unrealistic)

This whole philosophy, this new, modern way of seeing our lives, is now known as “reality.” It is no longer viewed as one way of doing things, but rather the only way. “This is just how the world is,” we are told at every turn. But who tells us these things? The new clergy of this modern religion: government and corporate bureaucracy, media, academia, and, always, experts.

Which experts? Answer: Those who work for government and corporate bureaucracy, media, and academia. This is clearly a circular argument. Moreover, any outside views (like the Bible, truth, reason, or morality, for example) are rejected. The views of Emerson, Thoreau, Weaver, C.S. Lewis,[xv] or even Solzhenitsyn[xvi] are, at best, relegated to history.

The principles of freedom, the things that brought about the “Miracle”, are replaced by counterfeits, including 1-5 above as well as 6-12 below:

6. Specialism (to the point of dependence)

7. Professionalism (to the level that the duties of some professions are frequently separated from, and even antithetical to, those of citizenship)

8. Vocationalism (for self, not service to others)

9. Bureaucracy (backed by force)

10. Political machines

11. Media machines

12. School machines[xvii]

Weaver was right. All of these “machines,” he explains, emphasize the human power to replace God, to give us what many modern citizens consider “real” improvements in life rather than what they see as “lesser” tools of praying and hoping. In this process, however, the focus is on increasing our blind faith in one entity: unlimited government. More powerful government—this is the modern solution to every problem.

Except one: Remember Acton’s famous quip that power corrupts, and the reality that if government power keeps increasing, so must the level of corruption. If the government is big enough to touch all our lives each day, so is the corruption. This, above all, is the reality of our times. The evidence is presented each night on the news, and all through the day in 20-minute news alerts and mobile feeds. The Left points out corruption on the Right, and the Right exposes corruption on the Left. If either side is even just 10% correct, the corruption has reached truly alarming levels. What then if there is truth in what both sides reveal?

As corruption spreads, whom do we turn to for help? Not government. Not bureaucracy. Not media, or academia, or the experts. These are too frequently the very perpetrators of the problem. Nietzsche pointed out this paradox when he noted that modern man has replaced morning prayers with the morning newspaper. People who haven’t replaced God with career and materialism can turn to prayer when they face the problems of modernism; but those who have accepted that government is god, that man’s institutions are our modern truth, are left destitute when corruption gains increasing levels of influence in our man-made institutions.”

Goldberg’s book sees other problems, not a turn away from God, as the real issue: “The crisis that besets our civilization is fundamentally psychological. Specifically, we are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle.”[xviii] We are also experiencing an intellectual crisis because we find ourselves in a situation where the problem is, to repeat: deepening corruption in our government, corporate world, bureaucracies, media, academic and other powerful institutions. To solve this problem, we need intellectual wisdom from places outside the infected areas. Emerson predicted this need: “When private men shall act with original views, the luster will be transferred from the actions of kings to those of [regular] men.[xix] Sadly, the power centers typically reject ideas and wisdom from outside, so the people must find ways to effectively work around infected institutions.

In short, our major national institutions are dominated by an establishment/corporate-media-academia-expert/elite, and we need the people, regular people, to rise to the challenge—intellectually. The only other option is to let this illness run its course—bringing certain decline to the United States.

In the time of the American founding, the regular people responded to a similar problem in a surprising and incredibly effective way: they read the classics, the great books of freedom and civilization. Outside the London centers of power—governmental, corporate, bureaucratic, media, academic—the founding generation searched for and found wisdom from the great books, wisdom at the same or higher intellect than London’s elites.

For example, in 1775 when Britain was deciding how to deal with the American colonies just prior to the Revolutionary War, Sir Edmund Burke told the House of Commons that the Americans weren’t like people in other nations, that they were, in fact, a serious danger to Britain if the revolution escalated, specifically because so many American citizens read the great classics and kept a close eye on their government at all levels. Burke warned in his speech that such widespread and deep reading made the Americans a unique people indeed:

“This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple…judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; [in America] they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle.  They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Samuel Williams of Vermont, soon after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, provided additional details on such reading by the regular people in America:

“All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: they are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets; to form some general acquaintance with the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, etc.

“Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state: and nothing would be more dishonorable to the parents, or to the children, than to be without it.”

In our modern world, such publications, documents and classics are easier to access than ever before, and the great books are still powerfully up to the task of freedom. But are we? It was regular people in the 1770s through the 1940s, reading and applying the great ideas of freedom and teaching their posterity to do the same, that made America great. If America is to remain great, we must be such people today.

Burke also warned Parliament that Americans had purchased and read almost as many copies of Blackstone and other great books on freedom as people in England. There is a reason the founding generations were able to stand so effectively for freedom—beginning with the fact that they deeply understood the principles upon which freedom is based. American citizens of the time heatedly discussed Plutarch, Locke, Hume, Montesquieu and the political ideas of the Bible—along with many others.

Few citizens today are so well read. Yet the same books are still available. They are incredibly easy to access, literally a few clicks away. If we are to be free in the years ahead, we must at the very least understand freedom as well as the Founders. Instead, we seem to have reached the point where the greatest books are basically banned, not because we can’t read them, but because most people simply don’t read them.[xx]

Freedom, and the future of freedom, is up to us. But the first step in freedom is reading—the right kind of reading. Without it, true freedom is always lost. Rights are vital in any free society, but only a deep-reading people will know their rights, and be able to uphold them. Any other type of people will lose the “Miracle”.

Let’s be clear: We don’t need all citizens to read the greats. But we do need some. Each citizen in our nation right now, based on what they have read and are currently reading, is either part of the problem or part of the solution.[xxi]

Which are you?


[i]  Jonah Goldberg, 2018, Suicide of the West, Crown Forum/New York

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Richard M. Weaver, 1962 (Cited in Richard M. Weaver, 2013, Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London)

[iv] Jonah Goldberg, 2018, Suicide of the West, Crown Forum/New York

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Richard M. Weaver, 1962 (Cited in Richard M. Weaver, 2013, Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London)

[ix] Richard M. Weaver, 2013 [original in 1948], Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841, “Self-Reliance”

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Richard M. Weaver, 2013 [original in 1948], Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London

[xiv] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

[xv] See The Inner Ring and The Abolition of Man

[xvi] See “A World Split Apart”

[xvii] Richard M. Weaver, 2013 [original in 1948], Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press/Chicago & London

[xviii] Jonah Goldberg, 2018, Suicide of the West, Crown Forum/New York

[xix] Emerson, 1841, “Self-Reliance”

[xx] This idea is attributed to Mark Twain

[xxi] This expression, in various forms, is attributed to Eldridge Cleaver

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