On Being an American

Photo Credit: Google Public Domain Photo

Ten years ago, when I began this blog, I explained that as a writer and educator words had power - the power to heal, the power to raise up and the power to destroy. Over the past year or more, the rhetoric that has been loosed in this country has become increasingly hateful, damaging and destructive. The power behind the words used in the press, in politics and in every day life comes from the privilege of being American. Yet, many of the same people claiming to be "true" Americans have never read the two documents this country is based on, nor do they know the men who wrote the words that we live by.

The Declaration of Independence is a work of fearless resistance by a committee of five Founding Fathers - Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Adams and Robert R. Livingston. Thomas Jefferson is considered the architect of this document. A talented writer, Jefferson was influence, like all writers, by the words of other wise authors, specifically, John Locke. 

The words of our Declaration of Independence set the foundation of what it means to be an American.  No longer desiring to be under the rule of the, then, oppressive British monarchy, the Founding Fathers were declaring a new nation - a nation in which it "becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

This statement is immediately followed by the words that are the cornerstone of our country. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In the Constitution, James Madison, and several other Founding Fathers, framed a document that is our Law of the Land. Influenced by the writings of various Enlightenment authors as well as the Iroquois Nation's, Great Law of PeaceThe Constitution of the United States begins with the words, "We, the People." 

These words, built on the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence, clearly form the archetype for our democracy. Interestingly, the Framers of the Constitution realized early on that what was written was not enough to rule this new nation. Therefore, the Bill of Rights was written, adding to the Law of the Land. (One point that is important for us to remember, the freedoms listed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights are afforded to ALL living in the United States, regardless of citizenship.)

The Constitution provides Americans with an outline of Rights and Responsibilites. What are these Rights and Responsibilites of being an American?  

The Rights are:

  • Freedom to express yourself;
  • Freedom to worship (or not) as you wish;
  • Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury;
  • Right to vote in elections for public officials;
  • Right to apply for federal employment requiring US citizenship;
  • Right to run for elected office;
  • Freedom to pursue "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The Responsibilities are:

  • Support and defend the Constitution;
  • Stay informed of the issues affecting your community;
  • Participate in the democratic process;
  • Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws;
  • Respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others;
  • Participate in your local community;
  • Pay income and other taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state and local authorities;
  • Serve on a jury when called upon;
  • Defend the country if the need should arise.
When people use hateful speech, when they use words to hurt, oppress or promote injustice, they are - based on the Constitution of the United States - unAmerican.  Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written with words of hope, words filled with love for humanity, words that lifted up all people, not simply a privileged few. 
May we all remember the words that this country was built upon. May we live by these words fearlessly. 


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