Freedom is like the air we breathe – we hardly notice it until it is challenged, threatened, or polluted. And like the physical contaminants that foul the air, the enemies of freedom are often slow-moving, insidious, and persistent. When we become aware of them much of the damage is already done and must be undone, often at great cost.
For two and a half centuries, since its very foundation, the death knell of American democracy reverberated throughout the world. But it survived the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Third Reich, the Japanese Empire, the Soviet Union, four French Republics, and dozens of repressive, autocratic regimes that spring up periodically like weeds in the fields of global history. The greatest threat to the nation was its own Civil War, the catastrophic “War between the States” from 1861-65, but from which it emerged in greater solidarity and freer than it had been before.
That is not to claim that conflict, rifts, and chasms have not opened in the ethos and politics of the American Republic. It is still a work in progress. But it is plainly durable. “E pluribus unum” is not an empty phrase. There has been a lot of talk recently in the aftermath of the insurrection of January 6th, which lasted an afternoon, that democracy is fragile. History indicates otherwise. At least the American experiment has survived its premature death knell for these 245 years. But it remains true that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
The greatest danger to the spirit of American democracy and the unity of the nation comes not from external animosity or economic competition, but from within, from inattention to the moral rot that is the inevitable price of the quest for power. Lord Acton was more than correct, he was prophetic when he wrote 134 years ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The pursuit of power for its own sake, like that of money, must end in disaster, at least moral disaster. This is as true of political power as any other.
St. Paul adds a telling note to such an appraisal, as we heard in the second reading appointed for this Sunday: “in weakness power reaches perfection… when I am powerless, it is then I am strong.”
Turning to the charter of American independence, it is worth meditating on the critical sentence that follows that phrase dear to the heart of every freedom-loving person, “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.”
Immediately there follows this caveat: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Political power exists to preserve and enhance the life of citizens, to protect liberty, and to promote happiness – -the common goods of all people. In the view of the Founders of American independence and democracy, anything short of this leads to suffering, tyranny, and misery.
If history has anything to say about all this, I suggest that it is the confident expectation that the American experiment in democracy, which now stands as the oldest federal government in the world, will endure and no matter how dim its radiance may wan at times, will survive as a light to peoples still struggling to be free.
Note: The earliest use of the exact phrase, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” dates to an 1809 book called The Life of Major General James Jackson, by Thomas U.P. Charlton. James Jackson was a member of first Continental Congress and was in the US Senate in early 1790s.
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Accessed 5 Jul 2017