By Jeff Olson
When we think about early champions of America’s civil liberties, the names of Anne Hutchinson and George Mason should be among the first to come to mind. There are of course others who played prominent roles, but none more courageous and consequential than these two. I highlighted Anne Hutchinson’s contributions in last week’s column, so this week I will address that of George Mason. However, his role will not be my theme but rather it will serve to define my theme.
The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States owe a great debt of gratitude to George Mason. He feared that the powers of the states might be consumed by a strong, overreaching central government and that God-given personal liberties originally preserved from English common law and American colonial experience might be encroached upon and perhaps even endangered in the long term. He expressed his reservations about the new constitutions in his “Objections to This Constitution of Government.”
More than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, George Mason institutionalized America’s civil liberties. While he chose not to sign the Constitution and actually lobbied against its ratification in his home state, it was his courageous and relentless pursuit of securing our individual freedom that gave us our Bill of Rights.
George Mason knew that individual liberties can exist only within a social order – within community. This is why he championed the powers of states and the volition of communities within those states. He understood that when communities begin to collapse, the most fundamental civil liberties cannot be secured. This is because within community reside the most essential human bonds created and sustained by a common moral ethos most often derived from personal faith rooted in the transcendent and eternal.
At the dawn of civilization people unite in search of communion with a higher power, and from that search and discovery a common union is formed and it is from this that all other aspects of culture flow: its politics, its economics, its arts, its sciences and so on. This would lead us to understand that community is much more than just an aggregation of individuals. Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century British statesman and political thinker, believed that the true compact of society is eternal: “it joins the dead, the living, and the unborn. We all participate in this spiritual and social partnership because it involves the love of neighbor, the sense of duty as ordained by God. Mutilate the roots of society and tradition, and the result must inevitably be the isolation of a generation from its heritage, the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of the sprawling, faceless masses.”
As our nation moves ever so much closer to becoming a social welfare state, our intermediate local institutions – what are the mediating structures of society – can be eliminated at worst and at best be at risk of atrophying and not functioning to the degree they should and once did.
These are what Burke called the “little platoons.” For Burke, the best life begins in the little platoons—family, church, civic organizations, etc. in local community—that orient men and women toward virtues such as temperance and fortitude. As government incrementally assumes the roles that were once the domain of the private sector, political and economic centralization ensues and then so does collectivism and collectivism is the antithesis of community.
While to some in our country this may seem like a fortress of security, its insistence on economic leveling and social conformity will sooner or later create a conflict of beliefs and values which will eventually call on us to choose between servitude or freedom. It is not poverty that induces the people to support totalitarian parties, but the longing for certitude and membership or belonging – what community has historically provided.
We must always remember – democracy and freedom are products of local institutions and self-reliance.
Perhaps our most pressing challenge is this: how best to confront and defeat those people and movements which, through politics, media, academia, entertainment, and corporate entities, have come to look upon society as a homogeneous mass of identical individuals whose happiness can be obtained only by manipulation and/or direction from the anointed elite and political class through legislation or worse yet through direct edicts or proclamations from the top.
While the name democracy remains, government is exerted from the top downward, not from the bottom upward as America’s founders designed. In the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “In the short run, the failure of voluntary initiative invites the spread of state power. In the long run, the disappearance of voluntary associations paves the way for the pulverization of the social structure essential to totalitarianism.
By the revitalization of voluntary associations, we can siphon off emotions which might otherwise be driven to the solutions of despair. We can create strong bulwarks against the totalitarianism of society.”
Certain things are key to keeping community intact and viable and a bulwark of freedom, not only for ourselves but for posterity as well: Those include: the inherent dignity of each other created in the image of God; the primacy of the individual, family and faith, consideration and mutual respect in our relationships with others in personal and group associations and local institutions; and the sustaining of the public square as a forum to keep the market place of ideas open, civil, and informative where each of us can contribute if we wish and feel comfortable in doing so.
I’ve seen this in our community for most of 40 years and some of you have for much longer. As Edmund Burke reminds us: Each of us must learn or continue “to learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” It has been my honor and privilege to serve in several of these little platoons over the years. Sure, we didn’t always get everything right and still don’t but we understood that if not then we learned from it and worked harder to get it right the next time. This resilience, this humility and even forgiveness and reconciliation was/is a part of what it means to be truly and fully human and to recognize and acknowledge our own value, fallibility, and need for redemption.
I am so very thankful for the spirit of community – for the many good neighbors in our homes, churches, schools, businesses, civic organizations, media, medical care, law enforcement, and beyond.
Perhaps never was community more fully realized than during the aftermath of the tornadoes of 1993 and 2009. Our little platoons became a full-fledged army and the hard fought battles were won, but it took some time. Sadly, there was loss of life but not loss of hope nor loss of resolve to go on.
And even though the tragic events of September 11, 2001 were far away in distance, the shock, the sense of loss, the anger, and the pain didn’t seem so far away personally. They were felt in the hearts of people in communities throughout our nation all the way from New York to California to Polk County, Arkansas.
It was evident then and it is still evident that the tie that binds has not come undone. However, today we need to be more vigilant than ever before and stay united in our core values in the ordinary days when in keeping the home fires burning we will be better prepared to face those fires from the outside when the time comes.
Let’s not forget to count our blessings each and every day and be thankful for family, friends and all we have and should appreciate in and of our community. And, if you are not a member of a little platoon then I hope you will join one and become part of the lifeblood that makes community possible and more of what it needs to be. To quote Burke one more time: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
As I opened with George Mason, so I shall close with him: “Every society, all government, and every kind of civil compact therefore, is or ought to be, calculated for the general good and safety of the community.”