The Cornerstone Of American Law
There are just a few truly great documents that represent the foundation stones upon which the American system of government was built. One is the Declaration of Independence. Another is The Bill of Rights. But when it comes to the legal girding that we always go back to in order to test if a law in this land can stand or fall, it is the Constitution of the United States of America that is that backbone that defines right and wrong for us.
Indeed you might even say that the sole reason we have a Supreme Court is to have a living body that is here to decide on, interpret and enforce constitutional law. And what is the worse accusation anyone can make about any act that is in question from a government agency? "That's unconstitutional" is that accusation. That is how powerful this document is in American life, legal definitions and culture.
The historical context of the signing of The Constitution was The Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia. That city witnessed many such historic events which enshrine its place in the history of the country to be sure. The framers of that Constitution would have to be considered without question the most intelligent and well educated men certainly of their time and maybe of any time. That document was so well crafted that it has lasted as a legal standard for over 200 years with no signs that its power will diminish for hundreds of years more. But in that context, the Constitution is the oldest document of its kind in existence in the world and the original is carefully protected but on display in Washington DC.
The Constitution reflected the best of some of the oldest legal documents of similar intent that went back hundreds of years into history. As such the Constitution includes ideas drawn from the Magna Carta, the French political philosopher Montesquieu, The Code of Hammurabi, the law of the Old Testament, ancient Greek political ideology from such writers as Polybius as well as Common Law from England. So while the core ideas of the Constitution draw from some of the greatest systems of government and ideologies from history, the outcome is a unique format for governing a people that was so untried that it was considered to be "The Great American Experiment."
The Constitution is divided into seven "articles" each of which discusses one of the divisions of government. Articles one through three discuss the three branches of government including the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Article four goes into depth about the rights and powers reserved to the states. It is clear to see that the framers knew the importance of leaving much of the power of governing at the local and state level and that those rights needed to be preserved at the foundational document of the society, The Constitution.
Other articles discuss the ratification process and federal power. But the wisdom of the framers of The Constitution lie in article five which outlines a process of amendments which leaves room for additional work to be done to keep the Constitution up to date to changes that need to be made. As such the Constitution has remained a living document for all of these years and will continue to be seen in that light for many decades and centuries to come.
America is a vast country covering thousands of square miles of land that traverses tremendously diverse climate and landscape. From high and majestic mountains, to wide deserts to vast fruitful plains that seem to go on forever, the sheer size of the physical landscape of America is breath taking.
Obviously, this was not always the case. When those earliest settlers landed on the east coast and carved out their stark settlements, they had no idea of huge expanse of land that lay to the west. It took the bold explorations of surveyors such and Lewis and Clark to report back how stunningly huge the amount of physical space that was available for America to inhabit.
At first, the very idea of becoming a nation was seemingly impossible for the early settlers to grasp. They came here to escape persecution, tyranny or to make a new home for their families. If they could have looked a few hundred years down the line into the future and seen the powerhouse of a nation that would grow up from their work in those early years, they would have been stunned that this country grew to be such a world force. So the earliest challenges of settlers and early leaders of the citizens of the young America was to grasp the scope of what they were about to set about to achieve.
But grasp that scope they did. It seemed that the physical majesty of what was to become the nation of America inspired a concept that was just as grand as the land itself and that was the concept of Manifest Destiny. Manifest destiny was the force that drove those settlers and explorers to drive their wagon trains across sometimes impossible terrain through difficult weather conditions and facing many dangers from animals and Native Americans alike to build a nation that spanned form the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
This was the dream of the early settlers of this country. They did not just see a new nation but one of importance, of an almost holy calling to become a virtual utopia of democracy and opportunity. And part of that utopian vision was the idea of a nation that spanned ocean to ocean and from Mexico to the Canadian border as well.
When you think about it, its phenomenal that a people who did not have space photographs of a landscape or high speed travel such as is common today to get a vision of a unified nation of such vast size and scope. But it was more than just physical size that spoke to the hearts and souls of those early Americans. Manifest Destiny spoke to a vision of greatness for America that was birthed in the hearts of even these early citizens.
The size of the country was to be a reflection of the majesty of the human spirit and the magnificence of the American experiment to build a nation built on freedom, the will of the people and on democracy and opportunity. Today such concepts seem ordinary and for that we can thank the early founders of this country for catching that dream together and making it a reality.
Many have criticized Manifest Destiny as greed or empire building. And to be sure, mistakes were made and many people died or had their individual destinies hurt in the wholesale rush to the west that America experienced in its early decades. But what is not diminished is that sense of calling and that sense that America was put here for something great. That calling lives still in the hearts of all true Americans as we find out how we too can help our country fulfill its Manifest Destiny to be a voice for freedom and liberty in the world. Let's hope Americans never loose their sense of calling and destiny. Because if that dies away, something holy and magnificent will die with it.
The Legacy Of Columbus
If you thought back to the first things you ever learned about the history of America, the one that jumps out is that Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America is 1492. While the date is correct, we later learned when our study of history became more scholarly that there is some dispute about whether Columbus discovered America at all. So what is the real legacy that this legend of Columbus has given to the American culture that has made him such a revered figure in cultural history?
So much of the Columbus story is approximate that, at first review, we would almost relegate the story of how Columbus discovered America to the level of a myth that borders on superhero worship. But Columbus was not a myth. There really was an explorer named Columbus who carried out three bold journeys across the ocean and during those journeys, he did indeed discover "the new world." His ships really were named the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and he did indeed embark one of those three voyages in 1492.
The legacy of Columbus then is more than just the facts of his exploratory journeys and their outcome. There is reason to believe that Columbus's fabled "discovery of America" did not occur on North American soil but somewhat further south of here, somewhere in the Bahamas. But the legacy of Columbus lies in his spirit and the challenge he took on that is part of the American spirit and one we identify with so strongly.
Part of the legend was that Columbus embarked on this trip for the new world despite the prevailing "scientific" belief that the world was flat. Now research in recent times have surfaced sufficient documentation to show that sailors of that time never did believe that teaching. Their extensive knowledge of navigation and astronomy, which is crucial for any successful sea voyage, was sufficient for sailors to know that the earth was round and that they would never "fall off the edge." However, the image of those brave men launching out to sea, against the advice of popular opinion, to find something new and exciting so connects with the American spirit of discovery and adventure that this myth persists as part of the legacy of Columbus.
Americans do have a tremendous sense of discovery and adventure and a deeply seated need to conquer new lands, to reach out beyond their own grasp and to do the impossible. This was the spirit of Manifest Destiny which gripped the nation long before there was any reason to believe that this meager band of colonists had the resources to settle a great nation. Americans always have had such a firm belief in themselves and a core faith that they could do the impossible. That part of the American spirit is what connects to Columbus's setting out on these bold missions facing certain dangers so he too could discover new lands and have great adventures.
The legacy of Columbus also lies in the American desire to explore. Even though the source of the quotation is only a science fiction show, the "mission" of the fictional space ship "The Enterprise" sums up a deep desire in the heart of all Americans.
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Her five year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.
For Americans, the mission of James Kirk is a perfect restatement of the mission of Christopher Columbus. And it is the mission of America which has driven this country and its citizens to discoveries and achievements that have never been done before. It is that spirit of Columbus in all Americans that is one of the things that have made this country great.
The Great War
The history of America is decorated with some of the great conflicts that have ever been fought by civilizations and for great ideals. This was never truer than in World War II which was sometimes called the Great War. As is so often the case, it was not a war that America wanted to become part of. So often, it is when aggressors bring war to America that she is forced to respond. But in all cases when America responds, it is with a fury that her enemies will seldom forget.
When you think about it, the very idea of a world war is terribly frightening. And in every way, World War II was a world war because it caught up virtually every country and every continent in a global conflict that went on for years. The enemies of America and her allies were well armed, intelligent, determined and powerful. But America was up to the challenge and it will be up to the challenge again if the likes of Hitler dare to threaten civilization like this again.
World War II was also virtually a textbook case of flawless collaboration with our allies. Working together with them almost like we were one country and one army we deployed our forces across multiple theaters of combat from Europe to Asia to Russia and across the globe. We had to fight more than one enemy. Hitler's Germany alone was a frightening enemy as it spread its evil influence across Europe capturing country after country and threatening to swallow up the continent whole and then move on to capture lands in central Asia and even America.
But we also had powerful enemies in German's allies, particularly Japan. When this frightening enemy struck our forces at Pearle Harbor, it was a blow to America that could not be ignored. For Japan, they had hoped to cripple the American military and remove all hope from the American heart to be able to strike back or become part of the conflict. They got exactly the opposite as every man, woman and child in America rallied to build the kind of war machine that would bring the Axis powers to a crashing end, no matter what the cost.
But the most important thing that America said to the world when it took on Hitler's armies and defeated them was that totalitarian rule of free peoples would never be tolerated. Hitler had dreams of world domination like the great kings of ancient Rome of the early Germanic empires. But America had thrown off dictators when we founded this country and declared that we would not become the pawn of kings or tyrants. We were not going to turn over that hard fought freedom to a madman while there was a fighting will left in this country.
It was not an easy battle or one without cost. Thousands of America's youth gave their lives to preserve the freedoms that had been won by our forefathers. Our leaders had to show a resolve and a unity that they would not blink in the face of a challenge and they would not let down the brave American soldier or the civilian population that stood behind them until Hitler and his allies were in defeat.
The world saw what America was made of in that great conflict. It saw that a country that was gifted with great wealth and prosperity was also willing to turn those resources to defend its borders and defend its allies. It was a stern lesson for our enemies to learn that America was not a country to be trifled with in combat. But then we showed that we were not a vindictive country when, even in defeat, we reached out to Japan, Germany and other defeated peoples and helped them rebuild from that awful war. This too is a testimony to the American sprit and the American sense of fair play. Let's hope that an enemy never rises up again to test that will because they will find as Hitler did, that America would not fail to respond to the call to battle or the call to honor which is her legacy.
In the annals of American history, there may be no other country name that evokes such emotion as the country of Vietnam. The history of this conflict is more than just a military struggle. The impact that the Vietnam conflict had on American culture and foreign policy for many decades to come makes it a truly watershed war in the life of a relatively young country.
Vietnam was not, on the surface as clearly a moral battleground as World War II or the Civil War had been. That in itself made it more difficult for Americans to understand and become patriotic about as they had been in prior wars. Yes, as in past conflicts, we found ourselves defending our allies, the South Vietnamese against the attacks of a communist neighbor to the north. And in that way, it became a struggle to assist an ally, a military objective that America had long embraced.
But the war was not just with the North Vietnamese. To a very large extent, the war was against the Chinese and the Russians who were using the theater in Vietnam to wear down the American fighting force. It was a war that had been going on for many decades before the Americans got involved as a regional battle.
Many foreign powers had gotten involved and left defeated so when America entered this conflict, it was a very different kind of war than we had been used to. The armies mixed with the population. There were no uniforms and formations and battle theaters as battle could occur anywhere at any time. Combine that with a hostile jungle setting and the complete absence of any battle protocol and you had a formula for failure if not a very difficult road to success.
Vietnam also is a watchword for the tremendous resistance movement that rose up on American soil to try to stop the conflict. This resistance movement became deeply entangled with a huge change to the social fabric in the rise of the youth movement, the hippies and the fast moving surge of the civil rights and the woman's rights movements. This made the era of the late 1950s through the early 1970s tremendously difficult to navigate as a nation.
Vietnam did follow somewhat of a predictable path of invasions, major battles, set backs and regrouping of our forces. But the military faced a huge challenge in facing the many new war scenarios this difficult combat setting presented. As the casualty count grew, without a clear cut definition of victory and with very few clear victories to demonstrate to the American people our superiority, the ability of civilian leadership to sustain the support for the war effort became jeopardized.
Vietnam very much represents a transition in how America viewed conflict. We came out of the huge successes we had seen our military bring in battle. The defeat of Hitler and the axis powers in World War II gave America a sense of confidence, of divine calling to prevail militarily and the concept that we are the good guys and we will always win. But we did not win in Vietnam and that was and is a hard lesson to learn.
America demonstrated its devout dedication to the concept of supporting an ally in a warring situation when it committed troops to the Vietnam conflict. But there were many lessons to be learned about preparation and going into a conflict with a strategy that had a high probability of success. In wars to come in later years such as Grenada, the Balkans and the Liberation of Kuwait, we demonstrated that America had learned those lessons going in with a massive force and achieving victory before we got bogged down in a long civil conflict.
So we can applaud the bravery of our troops and the willingness of our leadership to learn from a tough war like Vietnam. The lessons to be learned from Vietnam are still being worked out. But in the end, we will be a better nation and a stronger nation because we put ourselves on the line for a friend, even if the outcome was not the desired outcome.
Thomas Jefferson is one of those almost mythic figures from early American history that stand tall as one of the great heroes of the revolution and the early definition of what this country was going to become. Sometimes it's easy to look at a figure that stands so tall in history and think, perhaps some of that is myth. But when you look at the history of the times, he was every bit as great as our adoration of him suggests he was.
Thomas Jefferson's service to the new American union lasted over fifty years. He not only contributed to the core philosophical underpinnings upon which our democracy I based, he served in a variety of offices and made some phenomenal contributions to the developing country including...
*1775 - Served in the Continental Congress
*1776 - Wrote the Declaration of Independence
*1779-1781 - Governor of Virginia
*1783 - Elected to Congress
*1784-1789 - Commissioner and minister to France
*1790-1793 - America's first Secretary of State under George Washington
*1797-1801 - Served as Vice President of the United States
*1801-1809 - Third President of the United States
*1803 - Approved of and helped launch the Lewis and Clark Expedition
*1803 - Purchased the Louisiana Territory for the United States
*1815 - Launched the Library of Congress
*1825 - founded the University of Virginia
This phenomenal record of achievement is virtually unmatched in any public service record of comparable public servants. But Jefferson's contribution were more than just offices served, he was one or two or three key philosophical thinkers of his time that laid the ideological foundations of America.
It is impossible to overemphasize the accomplishment he writing the Declaration of Independence. This document has taken on such a central position in American history that it is viewed with the reverence usually reserved for religious documents. It so eloquently communicates the beliefs and the values of the American system of government that Jefferson can be seen as a true minister and prophet of those ideals.
Thomas Jefferson also believed strongly in Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion of the country as far as the Pacific Ocean. He provided the inspiration, the funding and the political muscle to launch the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition that was responsible for discovering vast new lands and treasures in the heartland of America and providing inspiration to a country to "go west young man" and to achieve that dream of becoming a nation that stretched "for sea to shining sea".
Jefferson had a thirst for knowledge that was virtually unquenchable. He passed that passion for learning on in the building of the University of Virginia. But his contribution to education that has made such a huge mark on American society was the building of the American library system by which citizens of any community can have access to large volumes of information at no cost. It was an amazing experiment in public education. But today few of us can imagine a world where we cannot at any time just "go check it out at the library". Libraries have become that central to the American way of life.
It seems that Thomas Jefferson made an impact on every aspect of society from the educational systems of the growing country to government and even making his viewpoints on religious freedom an important part of how America approached this crucial topic. The entire concept of "separation of church and state" was one that Jefferson championed.
It should be noted that in his writings it was clear that the separation of church and state works because it is there to restrict government from illegally restricting the religious rights of citizens. Sometimes we misinterpret Jefferson's concepts that this governmental restriction is there to limit religious freedom when in fact, it is there to encourage all the religious freedom that the citizens of America need to honor and worship with complete openness and to never fear that the government will hinder who, what, when, where or how they go about expressing their religious ideas.
It's important to look back at the genius of this man, Thomas Jefferson and be grateful that he was the man of the hour for such an important time in the development of the great nation of the United States of America.
The American Cowboy
Americans have a unique vision of themselves and their role in the world. Unlike perhaps any other peoples in history, Americans see themselves as people of destiny and a people who were put here to do something phenomenal and something significant for history and for all peoples of the earth. This unique self-concept, sometimes perceived as arrogance, is deeply grounded in a set of archetypes that Americans use to form their vision of themselves in the world. And no other archetype is as powerful in the American psyche than that of the cowboy.
The actual American cowboy was indeed a unique individual. While probably not as noble and ruggedly handsome as the images created of him in the movies, they were unique types of men who carved out a civilization from the rugged wilderness that was the American west in the years before the turn of the last century.
Some of the reasons that the image of the cowboy sometimes includes elements of the outlaw and the loner is that much of the legend of the cowboy came from stories of refugees from the broken southern army who took to the life of the cowboy rather than attempt to integrate into a society that included making peace with "the Yankee". And that type of individual certainly did account for many of the outlaws who went on to become the stuff of legend and stories even to this day.
The renegade and loner image combined with the rough life of an actual cowboy whose job it was to guide those huge herds of cattle along trails such as the historic Cumberland trail where they could be sold to become the steaks, leather and other goods that were sold in rustic American stores of the time. This was a difficult life and the stories of the trail make up many history books for sure. But far more of the stories of the trail are glorifications of that lifestyle that must have been difficult indeed.
But the image of the cowboy was also something that grew larger than what the actual lifestyle of those simple but rugged men must have lived in the American west. It was an image that pulled together heroes as far flung as the Australian Gaucho cowboy, the Japanese Samurai and a knight in King Arthur's court. It was an image of a man who demonstrated the rugged individualism that all Americans consider to be one of the central unifying traits that makes America great.
The cowboy image is one that even has its influence as high in the social strata of America that it influences the presidency. It is said that there is a tradition for any president when he first is elected and comes to Washington to begin learning this big new job. Tradition h olds that each president has as part of their early duties to sit down and watch the movie High Noon. They say that President Clinton watched it dozens of times in his early years. If this is true, it accounts for how often a new president seems to grow and change in the office and becomes his own version of the great American hero that is depicted in that movie. The American cowboy defends the virtue of the weak and helpless. He is a staunch defender of families and those in society who are trying to carve out a home in a difficult world. As such, the American cowboy fits with the "superhero" image that also appeals to the American system of justice and morality and values.
Even the star wars epic films were fundamentally grounded in the legend of the cowboy. The cowboy concept grew up from a history of our country that included the settling of a big land and the settling of a wilderness that pit the god given will and intellect of man against God's creation. And it was the will of man that prevailed. That is why American's admire the cowboy because he represents their own struggles for greatness, for success and to be a heroic figure at least for their families, home towns and churches. And that desire so deeply rooted in the culture of American history will always be what makes America and Americans great.
America Conquers The Air
If you ask any student even in elementary school why the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is significant to American history, they will know the answer immediately. They will know that this was the place that Orville and Wilber Wright made the first working airplane and discovered that man could fly.
Today, with thousands of airplanes taking to the sky at any given moment and the experience of flying high above the earth as common as riding a bicycle, it seems that a world where men did not fly is as far away as the ancient Romans. But we have to travel in time back to the days before the Wright brothers made their phenomenal discovery and the invention of the first aircraft when there was a time when it was firmly believed that man would never fly like a bird and indeed, man was meant to never fly but always be a terrestrial being. We can be grateful that the Wright brothers did not hold to that belief.
The date of that first successful flight was December 17, 1903. It was on that fateful day that Orville and Wilber successfully flew the first controlled, powered, heavier than air airplane. This break through ranks as one of the greatest inventions of American history and in truth, one of the great inventions of all time as man had been dreaming of being able to fly as far back as we have primitive drawings illustrating that dream.
The Wright brothers were well suited to go through the tedious research to finally create a machine that could accomplish this feat. We all know that great inventions are often the results of hundreds or thousands of failures and tests by which the inventor refines his ideas and makes new discoveries that take him step by step toward that final break through. That was certainly true of the Wright brothers.
Our reference to flight becoming as common as riding a bicycle is well chosen because it was the Wright brothers vocation as mechanics repairing printing presses, motors and bicycles that gave them the knowledge of the inner workings of such machines that was needed to create a machine that could sustain flight. Their work to perfect the design of the common bicycle lead them to believe that conquering flight was not a question of providing sufficient power to the aircraft as it was providing mechanisms of control and balance to properly keep the aircraft steady with sufficient consistency that it could take to the air.
Long before that first successful flight, the Wright brothers conducted their research. Using their bicycle shop as a makeshift laboratory, they first experimented with gliders and unmanned aircraft to refine their theories and their designs. But finally on December 17, 1903, they achieved their dream of manned flight, even if only for a short time. Orville Wright's account of that first flight is scientific and understated.
"Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds."
Little did the Wright brothers know that an entire new industry would be built around these simple experiments. Moreover, they had achieved a dream man had dreamed for centuries, to actually be able to fly above the ground and come back safely. It is truly one of the great accomplishments of American history.
The 22nd Amendment
On February 27th, 1951, the 22nd amendment was ratified which made permanent a tradition that has profound influence on the philosophy of government in the United States of America. This amendment may not be the most well known amendment but its place in the fabric of American history cannot be overstated. That is because the 22nd Amendment mandated that...
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
The limitation of service as President of the United States to two terms was one that up until the 22nd amendment was more a matter of custom than law. It began when George Washington refused to run for a third term. But by making the limitation of power in the presidency in the 22nd amendment, the American people made a bold statement about how their government would be run.
One of the most unique aspects to how the United States of America organized its government was the concept of citizen rulers. This concept was born in the very halls and pubs where the founding fathers gathered to discuss this new country that was just getting started. By reducing the idea of a "career politician", especially at the presidential level, the 22nd amendment dealt a deadly blow to the concept that America would ever be ruled by a king or a "president for life."
This was clearly a reaction by America to the abuses that had witnessed by the pilgrims and immigrants that make up this great country in their homelands. They reacted strongly and negatively to the deification of kings and the virtually unlimited powers that too many times systems of royalty tended to give to their leadership. This was one of the central themes that caused so many to flee Europe, Central Asia and other parts of the world to seek a land where it was the people who were the center of the governments will, not the arbitrary ideas of a king who was cut off from the real needs of the people he served.
The way America set up its presidency was in every way an attempt to "fix" the flaws and abuses of the European models and refocus the center of power in government on the electorate rather than on the elected. Another aspect of the American federal system that was put in place deliberately to limit the ability of those in power to abuse that power is the system of checks and balances. This system assures that none of the branches of government, The Congress, the Presidency or the Supreme Court could dominate the other or take complete power and rule without challenge. By insuring that all in power had to answer to the opposing party and be prepared to answer to the American people for what they did and even said, this completely eliminated that chances that one part of the government would stage a "coup" over the other.
Accountability is a word that is not very exciting but it is the concept that has kept the American system of government healthy and in service to its people rather than putting them in service for over 200 years.
In addition to these several highly innovative methods the founding fathers gave to this young country to eliminate the abuses of past governmental systems, they also put a system in place that assured the orderly transition of power. The system of elections every two years stopped two evils, the occurrence of a politician who served for life without accountability and a system wherein the only way to loose your job in government was by violent overthrow. As a result the American system, albeit contentious and argumentative, has been and continues to be one of the most peaceful and orderly systems of federal administration in the world and indeed in the history of the world.
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