What are we celebrating on Independence Day?

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

On July 4, Americans can take great pride in the vision of the Founding Fathers. These men created a land conceived in liberty and devoted to the rule of law.

What held this conception of the new nation together was the belief that it was fostered by natural law, by providential will.

After all, Americans - as opposed to other people - say "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..." These were not merely symbolic words. They were the expression of a people that considered itself blessed by God and acting as God prescribed.

For much of American history the truths espoused were universal, bred in the bone of humanity.

When government acted, it was restrained by the common belief that its sphere of influence was limited by private activities such as religious observance and by the proscriptions in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Yet this vision of the founding has been dramatically altered by the rush of events in the 20th century and the emergence of a "pragmatic" vision. This vision was developed most forcefully by John Dewey, scholar and progenitor of this new American citizen.

Dewey, who wrote his most influential works early in the 20th century, contended that the vision of the founders were no longer appropriate. His position on citizenship was in unvarnished opposition to the Founding Fathers. Where they spoke of universal truth buttressed by God's will, he spoke of modern science as the foundation stone of liberty.

Where the founders were distrustful of government as a potential source of tyranny, Dewey viewed government as an active force that adjudicates injustice and unequal distribution of wealth.

Where the founders jealously guarded the private sphere against intrusions by government, Dewey saw public activity - civic duty - proscribing the private sphere.

The Deweyan view captured the imagination of Americans because World Wars and the Great Depression demanded expansive government action in the 20th century. Dewey's epistemology was consistent with historical conditions. But perhaps it's time to reconsider this Deweyan conception against the backdrop of a new century.

For one thing, modern science has produced great fear as well as great achievements. It has opened a Pandora's box of opportunity, but its truths are limited and its ability to uplift the human spirit has disappointed, notwithstanding miracles like mapping the human genome.

Second, while the U.S. government has not produced tyranny, its intrusiveness has damaged loyalty to the nation.

Third, while much attention is given to the private sphere in matters such as abortion, the free exchange of opinion and the private expression of prejudices and preferences have been constrained by the emergence of a public orthodoxy that is challenged at one's peril.

The America celebrated on July 4 does not resemble the America at the founding. Perhaps this evolution was inevitable. But on this anniversary it's worth asking whether Americans know what they are celebrating and, if given the choice, whether they would prefer the land of Thomas Jefferson or the land of John Dewey.

Herbert London is a professor of humanities at New York University. Distributed by Bridge News.

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