On March 4, 1789…yes, 220 years ago yesterday…New Hampshire ratified the U.S. Constitution to replace the Article of Confederation, making the new framework of our government operational. The ratification, however, may not have been completed without additional promises and negotiations about the rights of individuals under a new federal system. Ten amendments were added to the Constitution as the ‘Bill of Rights’ in 1791, fulfilling these critical promises and stabilizing a fragile new form of government. From the very start, the tension between ‘we the people’ and ‘I the citizen’ has been the focus of attention and conflict, even leading to the Civil War. And…it seems every generation of Americans must decide again and again how to balance the rights of the many with the rights of the one. My interest today is in this tension within the specific context of each generation…and each moment…in the dynamic life of our country.
I think we worry most about the extremes. If we push individual freedom to its limits, we probably end up with total anarchy with no meaningful relationships at all. Then, on the other hand, if we push the authority of the government to its limits, we end up with a totally homogenized population of followers who move like a herd of not-so-bright wildebeests who run because everyone else is running. Neither of these extremes is very attractive, so we’re basically forced to live in the range between them…where we have to constantly decide how to adjust our individual desires in light of the many ‘we’ relationships that make life fulfilling and sustainable, even the special ‘we’ relationship with our government.
My interest here is not just in this tension…I add to the mix the tension that comes from each new and unique context as ‘we’ decide things together as responsible, yet independent, citizens. It is our natural and changing environment that shapes us and our decisions much more than we’d like to admit. Physics, chemistry, genetics, and even the weather affect each us profoundly as cope with an ever-changing and dynamic context of ‘we’ decisions. Sheesh…it’s so complex, I can scarcely understand how we can get through just one day! My suspicion is that this triad of tensions plays a critical role in our personal, social, economic and political lives. Here we may find a profoundly philosophical foundation for effective issue framing. How does this issue affect ‘me’…’we’…’here and now’? Think about it. Talk about it.