Fifty years after writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson reflected on what he had done in a letter to Henry Lee, writing:
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
That idea, that there was an “American mind” which was an expression of the shared beliefs of the people, was central to the concept of proper government as conceived by the founding fathers. This American mind or national identity was distinctly different from that of other nations, and while clearly everyone did not think exactly alike, it was assumed that there was a basis of common interests and values which all Americans shared.
From the poor Virginia planter to the wealthy Boston merchant, regardless of wealth or education or status, there was a commonality of values that was the American mind. Liberty, independence and responsibility formed the basis of that mindset. People were self-sufficient and looked out for their own interests and their own affairs. They asked little of their government and expected government to take little from them in return. Government was a necessary evil which worked best when it was small and far away.
The idea of dependence was abhorrent to them as individuals and as a culture. They wanted no charity and they wanted no overlords. They were dedicated to individual and national autonomy without the guiding hand of paternalism hovering over them poised to lift them up or swat them down at whim. Frances Trollope described Americans of the post-revolutionary period as “Provincial, boastful, optimistic, swaggering, patriotic, opportunistic, inventive and crude.” They didn’t fit her refined sensibilities and she cut her time in America as short as possible, but it did inspire her son Anthony to admire Americans for their “self-asserting, obtrusive independence.”
These were our ancestors, but the same description no longer applies to us. Their American mind of Jefferson’s time was independent, but we lost that mentality as we became mired in a culture of dependency which has grown at an accelerated rate in the last two generations. Trollope (the son) went on to address the issue of independence and dependency, writing:
“Men and women do not beg in the States; they do not offend you with tattered rags; they do not complain to heaven of starvation; they do not crouch to the ground for half-pence. If poor, they are not abject in their poverty. They read and write. They walk like human beings made in God’s form. They know that they are men and women, owing it to themselves and to the world that they should earn their bread by their labor, but feeling that when earned it is their own.”
To Trollope even the poor in America were ennobled because they retained an independence and self-sufficiency. The American Mind was still healthy when he wrote 65 years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Sadly, Trollope’s words no longer describe us. In the 1960s our materialistic culture caused us to confuse freedom with freedom from want and we embraced the illusion that if we could make people less needy we would make them more free. The truth is that you cannot separate freedom from responsibility. If you take away peoples responsibility for their own needs you also take away their liberty. When government gives with one hand it takes away with the other.
Make no mistake here, I am not just talking about the poor. They at least have excuses. They’ve been undereducated by our government schools and come from a multi-generational culture of poverty which is a national disgrace. The culture of dependence has risen up the social and economic hierarchy and it has become the standard in business and industry. We have a War on Drugs, but we have no war on the most dangerous drugs – money and political influence. Government acts like a pusher and uses money in the form of subsidies, bailouts and tax breaks to turn businesses into addicts and create a junkie economy dependent on the state.
In 1776 the American Mind was focused on independence and the risks and opportunities which come with it. Today the American Mind has become dimmed and deranged, yielding to the lure of dependency and fearing the challenges which come with independence. Some argue that we are no longer a young nation and our national mind has become senile and demented, but you can take an analogy too far.
Clearly the American mind needs a good scrubbing to remove years of bad ideas and the creeping crud of socialism, but there’s reason to hope that somewhere under there we’ve still got something worth saving, that the American mind which Jefferson wrote about has a durability which can withstand the ravages of time and reassert itself if given some proper care and attention by those who still value liberty and independence and want to see them restored. Let’s tear away the crud of bad government and corrupted institutions and find that American state of mind again – the mind that gloried in independence and the liberty it brings.