Frontier Lessons in Liberty

Social Fabric by from National Affairs, Summer 2012

The continuation of the American experiment requires cultivating a citizenry that can envision the rich life that flourishes between the extremes of overbearing government and radical individualism—in short, cultivating a citizenry that knows how to be free and prioritizes that freedom.

America is a nation obsessed with its founders. Histories of the Revolution and biographies of its leaders have been consistent bestsellers for decades; a few years ago, HBO’s miniseries on the life of John Adams was an unlikely pop-culture craze. The most relevant form of this founder-worship is surely the Tea Party: From Gadsden-flag bumper stickers to lawmakers’ frequent homages to the founding era, the movement has rekindled in some corners of our politics a devotion to the Constitution and its framers.

This popular enthusiasm for the revolutionary era is surely salutary. The men who forged our nation exhibited extraordinary courage and a genius that has stood the test of time; their accomplishments are worthy of remembrance and honor. Yet there is a risk in our veneration of the founders as well: They are the easy Americans to love, having thrown off the yoke of a detested oppressor and insisted on the promise of liberty. And at a moment when our own government seems to overstep its proper bounds, we have come to think that our time demands the type of response theirs did — and so look to the revolutionary model to guide our actions today.

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