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Character keeps liberty alive

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James Russell Lowell, the American poet and diplomat, was once asked by the French historian, Francois Guizot, how long the American republic would endure? "As long," said Lowell, "as the ideas of the men who founded it remain dominant."

During the half-century since World War II, the ideas of the Founders have lost their prominence in the schooling process and receive scant attention by the nation's authors, poets and playwrights and political leaders. The Fourth of July, our country's patriotic holiday, offers the occasion to revisit some of the ideas of the Founders.

In most other nations, the people's devotion to the homeland is inspired by a rich mix of cultural features uniquely their own — distinctive language, cuisine, beverages and clothing, folk heroes, literary, artistic and musical giants from centuries past and architectural wonders known to every child — a mosaic of national treasures. American patriotism is altogether different. Consider, for instance, the fairly recent admission to the union of Hawaii and Alaska. These two territories, culturally, were remarkably different from each other and from the 48 states, and yet both were instantly accepted as full and equal partners. This welcoming embrace of peoples of a dissimilar heritage is an extraordinary occurrence and reflects the particular nature of our national origin.

The American Revolution was fought for a single purpose, to achieve freedom from British tyranny. The Declaration of Independence cited 27 kinds of oppressive action and reported the prolonged and futile efforts the colonists had made to bring an end to these injustices.

The price Americans paid for their freedom was eight long years of war and hardship and sacrifice. When liberty was finally achieved, its protection was the primary concern in designing the Constitution and in adding amendments that specified rights of the citizens that could not be diminished or negated by the government.

The creation of the United States of America shattered existing concepts of political institutions. The Founding Fathers not only knew from their own experience how precious liberty is to the human being, but they also knew that it was at least as difficult to sustain liberty as it was to achieve it.

In his inaugural address, George Washington dwelt primarily on what he believed to be of the greatest importance to the new government, the character of the people and of their elected officials. Washington stressed standards of the highest character throughout his career in the Army and the government. In this emphasis, he was transmitting the wisdom of the French political philosopher, Charles de Montesquieu, whose major work, "The Spirit of the Laws" (1748), set forth a number of principles woven into the U.S. Constitution. Montesquieu explained that a republic could only survive as long as its people were virtuous.

Most governments decide what they require of the people and issue decrees to be enforced by police and by punishments, which, in some nations, are brutal and inhumane. In a smoothly operating free society, the cooperation of the citizens is primarily achieved not by laws, but by the willingness of the people to abide by innumerable, informal standards of conduct. These include lawfulness, truthfulness, civility, manners, morals, kindness, respect for the other person's rights and sensitivities, sportsmanship, loyalty, marital fidelity, integrity, earning one's own way and many more, and above all a willingness to use social pressures to encourage other people to abide by the informal rules.

As long as such civilized codes of behavior are generally observed, the people can live together amicably and productively. When the informal rules break down, trouble follows. When large numbers of citizens revert to the savage inclinations to cheat and lie and steal and vandalize and in other ways take advantage of their neighbors, then the government is called on to pass more and more laws and hire more police and build more prisons, and the free society, no longer virtuous, turns itself into a new tyranny as the laws and penalties keep multiplying.

The ideas of the Founders that James Russell Lowell believed to be the essential foundation of our free society have not been kept alive in the public consciousness over the last half-century. The task now is to help all Americans understand why honorable conduct in all aspects of life and sacrificing for the general well-being are the marks of a true American patriot and are the best guarantees of their liberty.

John A. Howard, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Howard Center on Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill.