Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Founding Fathers, Barack Obama, and “Taking Care of Our Own”


Here's a piece that I wrote after Obama's acceptance speech last Thursday night.  We were not able to place it as an op-ed (still trying), so I have posted it here.  --JF


The Founding Fathers would have been proud of Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night in Charlotte.  Ever since the Chicago-based community organizer broke onto the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with his famous “Red State, Blue State” address, he has been preaching a message of civic responsibility that reflects the political vision of the American founding.

As Obama accepted his party’s nomination for the President of the United States, and reminded the American people of the accomplishments of his first term, he did not let us forget about the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Obama was right when he said that “citizenship” is a “word at the heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.” 

The Founding Fathers knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good.  Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship can sound foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”

If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic:  “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”  Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society. 

Barack Obama’s speech, drawing upon this older American tradition of civic humanism, was a stark contrast to the vision of America that the Republican Party put forth at their convention in Tampa. The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but Obama, echoing the Founders, made it clear that a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.

The Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream that we heard during the GOP convention fails to recognize that we are not autonomous individuals.  Citizenship requires a long view--an understanding that we have been shaped by the circumstances of the past, we have obligations to each other in the present, and, to quote Obama, we are responsible to “future generations.”

Of course the GOP rhetoric of individualism will appeal to people who do not like government intervention or the idea that they must sacrifice their own pursuits of happiness to the common good. But such a view of America would look foreign to our Founding Fathers.

As Obama finished his speech on Thursday night, Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” began to blare through the sound system of Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.  The song is a republican anthem.  It provided a perfect exclamation point to Obama’s speech.  I am not sure what the Founding Fathers would have thought about Springsteen’s music, but they could certainly relate to the stirring chorus: “We take care of our own/We take care of our own/Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own.”

6 comments:

josephadelman said...

Thanks for this post, John. One of the ironies, in fact, of the Franklin-Alger-Carnegie vision is that it doesn't even embrace the fullness of their perspectives on America.

Franklin (and Carnegie too) was certainly in favor of the individual's ability to act in the world, but he was just as in favor of collective action as Rush. What many forget is that Franklin was perhaps the greatest collaborator in eighteenth-century America. For Franklin, the individual's cultivation and development are only possible in the context of libraries, fire companies, scientific and learned societies, and the other public works that he championed. That side of Franklin, and how crucial it was to his understanding of individual freedom, too often gets lost in the attempt to make Franklin into the "I Built It" individualist of modern politics.

I hope this gets placed somewhere. It's a great perspective.

John Fea said...

Absolutely, Joseph. I am probably talking more about the legacy of Franklin in American cultural history than the 18th century Franklin.

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

John, your quotation from Benjamin Rush is interesting, but does not constitute socialism, at least within the historical context of the eighteenth-century. Many British and American divines, including evangelical and liberal Whigs, preached the message of selfless civic duty for one's country, but within an ordered and hierarchical society (see the works of J.G.A. Pocock and Richard Sher).

John Fea said...

Jonathan: Of course Rush's quote does not constitute socialism. And yes, the entire point of my post was to show that civic humanism was prevalent at the founding. But I think you are missing my point. This kind of civic humanism that Rush espoused would look very foreign in our political culture today and would prompt many Tea Parties and libertarians to label Rush and other civil humanism as socialists. Actually, this is why so many socialists today love Gordon Wood's *Creation of the American Republic*.

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Yes, that's right: the civic humanism mindset of the 18th century would not be appreciated today, especially by conservative politicians. Incidentally, when I was looking for a monograph on B. Rush (there are very few out there) a few days ago, I came across David Barton's book on him. I can only imagine what Barton says about Rush's religion and politics.

Lisa said...

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