Reagan, Tocqueville, and History: Freedom and American Exceptionalism
In his Inaugural Address the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, affirmed his belief that America was exceptional, special and unique among nations. America’s long-standing success and liberty was perceived by nations around the world as a miracle of history. That miracle, Reagan believed, was the spirit found in individual Americans, and the political system that unleashed their potential. Reagan’s belief was not novel, nor was it political. It was found in the laws of nature, America’s history, and it was found to exist by critical observers, most notably the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. America was exceptional because she was free, and this freedom was founded on timeless principles of natural law and rights which recognized the human dignity of the individual.
Reagan’s ideas were thought revolutionary when he was elected president, even inspiring a book compiling these ideas, written in Reagan’s own hand, in 2001. But Reagan’s ideas were not revolutionary, as has been offered by some critical scholars. They pre-dated America’s founding, were found in the writings of the ancient philosophers and religious sages, were embraced by the Founding Fathers, and acknowledged by the French historian and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 as the key to America’s greatness. Reagan’s vision sought to restore America to her original ideals, to re-kindle them as it were, not to install something new. America’s foundation was sound and established in history. If she was going to be restored to greatness, Reagan knew, Americans needed to be reminded of their unique station in life as divine creatures, created to be free. Tocqueville had observed that many believed these principles and values were “irresistible.” They were uniform, ancient, and the most permanent tendency to be found in history. Reagan knew this, too.
America’s greatness was not created in a vacuum and it was not the result of new and revolutionary ideas. It rested on those principles that were found in her heritage, a heritage not limited to the Founding Era, but could also be found in creation itself, and observed throughout history. These principles were built into American institutions and lived in the hearts of her citizens. America, Tocqueville said in 1835, possessed an almost religious enthusiasm for her ancient customs and laws, virtues and rights. In 1981, however, that enthusiasm was gone. America had lost its enthusiasm because she had lost her way. She had forgotten her heritage and institutions. Reagan’s address was the first step toward restoring it, and the timeless values that brought it.
When Reagan gave his Inaugural Address in 1981, he outlined his bold vision for America. In doing so he reiterated these timeless principles that had lead to America’s greatness. Quoting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he reminded Americans of their government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Self-governance was her heritage, with each American in charge of his own destiny, pursuing his own happiness, while contributing to the good of the nation. What was the origin of this belief? It was found in the principle of equality, of men in harmony with the laws of nature, which led to an understanding of man’s responsibility in the divine order, and the God who established it.
In America, though all men were equal, they contributed to America’s greatness in different ways, Reagan said, each according to the special talents of his vocation. Aristotle himself, in his renowned discourses on the body politic, had said the same and emphasized the importance of these individual contributions in striving for a just society. In his acknowledgement of accountability to this divine order, Aristotle accepted that these various individual associations came together to form a community, and government was required to protect and encourage its pursuits. Reagan believed Americans had been sold on the reversal of that relationship, with individuals meant to serve a pre-existent government and her aims, rather than pursuing their individual goals with a consideration toward divine accountability and purpose. It was stifling American growth and inhibiting her God-given right to pursue happiness. America was better than this. If she was ever going to reach her potential, she needed to return to the principles that first empowered her. Government should help, not hinder those pursuits.
Reagan was not simply choosing to use inspiring rhetoric. He truly believed these things, with former aides noting that his Inaugural Address was simply a reflection of his personal philosophy. He believed Americans believed it to, they had just forgotten. When one considers the observations of Tocqueville, and his praising of the independent spirit and self-reliance of Americans, Reagan had a point, and his point was grounded in America’s history. These characteristics were the basis of dreaming big dreams. America could solve big problems, accomplish great things, and live in peace. It was her God-given right and destiny. What she needed was a little history lesson.
Philosophical Roots of America’s Founding
America’s founding began long before 1776. Though America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, relied on the individual rights “…nature and nature’s God…” entitled them, the Declaration relied on the sacred and undeniable truth of natural law and self-government, established by other thinkers to get to this point. Aristotle acknowledged the existence of a divine order and first mover. Augustine of Hippo, the renowned theologian, made this “first mover” a question of theism, presupposing that this “prime mover” was none other than the Judeo-Christian God, revealed in the person of Christ. Thomas Aquinas built upon this presupposition, offering that the natural law acknowledged by Aristotle revealed the divine law and lawgiver explained by Augustine. If that was the case, Aquinas believed, we had a responsibility to reflect that truth in the laws of society.
A natural universe and its divine order were God’s gift to men, John Locke said, which gave him the freedom to pursue his God-given responsibilities, so long as he used his freedom responsibly, and government should aid that pursuit. Being a unique creation of God, the imago Dei, is what makes man exceptional. God, Reagan said, intended man to be free. Like Augustine, Aquinas, and Locke, Reagan believed that freedom came with a responsibility to help our fellow man, not just in America, but wherever she had influence. Government should aid self-governance with a noble aim, not replace it.
The right of self-governance was not something government could award, Reagan said. Self-governance was our God-given right. Even the discussions concerning the ratification of the U.S. Constitution affirmed pre-existent and historical rights. It was enshrined in the founding documents, inspired by the writers of history, and placed in the Declaration by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson did not seek to establish or reveal any new ideas of government. He simply affirmed what was already “self-evident.” He wrote of his authorship of the Declaration in 1822, “I did not consider it part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment never expressed before.” And he did not. It was commonly accepted, through a philosophy that acknowledged a natural and divine law that was based in history, that men were free. That freedom came from “…nature and nature’s God…” King George simply needed to be reminded.
Freedom, though self-evident, needed to be defined and understood for it to be truly exceptional. Man was free, but what was his responsibility? If the laws of nature and nature’s God gave him “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” what did that mean? And how did men fulfill that obligation? How was the success of government dependent on the answer? Freedom, Locke had said, could not be used as license to act however one wished.
In a strictly theological sense, freedom is the ability to live according to one’s conscience, with an accountability to God, as explained by the Apostle Paul in Romans, chapter two. There was no respect of persons with God, according to Paul, men would all be judged by the same standard. In a political sense, as Reagan said, it is the freedom to control one’s own destiny, so long as one looks out for his neighbors, an idea found in Locke’s Treatise’s on government. In doing so, he lives a life that will one day be judged by God, not men. Each individual man will be judged by the same divine standard. In the legal context, according to William Blackstone, in describing the rights of Englishmen, this naturally leads to self-reliance and self-determination. Man was entitled to pursue his own interests and was entitled to the fruits of those efforts, but he was accountable to God. The government had become too overbearing, Reagan said, and was helping itself to that which it was not entitled. It dictated how individuals should exercise freedom, seeing citizens as dependent on government, and not government dependent on citizens. Government should protect freedom, not replace it.
The American Revolution was inspired, in part, by the notion that the British Parliament looked on the American colonists as subjects dependent on the Crown for every part of their existence and activities. The Crown wanted control of their direction and choices. Charles Townsend, in arguing for the adoption of the Townsend Acts—which taxed colonial glass, paper, paints, lead, and tea—supported his argument by declaring that the colonists were children “planted by our care and nourished up by our indulgence.” Thus, Townsend believed, Britain was entitled to the first-fruits of colonial revenue, completely at Parliament’s discretion, without regarding the rights of citizens or their individual interests. He was rebuked by Colonel Isaac Barre, who said in defense of the colonies:
Planted by your care? No, your oppressions planted them in America…they fled from tyranny…They, nourished up by your indulgence? They grew because of your neglect of them…And believe me, remember I this day told you so, that the same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at the first, will accompany them still…”
This was the spirit of freedom that Tocqueville found in his tour of America in the early 19th century. Americans, he said, will “inform you of what his rights are, and by what means he exercises them.” Every man worked to earn a living, Tocqueville observed, and expected his neighbors to do the same. Whether in a skilled trade or agriculture, man expected remuneration and expected to earn a profit. In this there was pride in self-sufficiency and honor in labor. Since men engaged in commerce freely, consensually, and individually, most communities did not need the interference of government to conduct their affairs.
Self-preservation, Locke said, was the very definition of “reasonable behavior.” Self-preservation then, of necessity, requires the right to work and to keep the profits—whether material or currency—of that work, so one could provide the essentials of life. To that right could be extended the rights of property ownership, though Locke extended this right to mean more than simply material things. It extended to whatever a man possessed—his faculties, his abilities, his thoughts—that which he produced himself, whether with his hand, mind, or conscience. He had the right to use these things however he wished in his pursuit of self-preservation, so long as he did not harm to his neighbor. As part of a community, he could enter mutually beneficial economic exchanges with others also engaged in those same individual pursuits.
The right to keep the fruits of his labor and freely engage in mutually beneficial economic exchanges without excessive government interference—as Tocqueville had observed—was instrumental to America’s success, Reagan said. The belief that government should somehow be the primary recipient of what individual citizens earned was contrary to our founding principles and the God-given rights of men. Jefferson listed “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing taxes on us without our consent” as the two primary means by which British Parliament imposed on the free enterprise of Americans. Reagan’s criticism of government deciding how much of our earnings we could keep, and the terms on which we could do business, was simply a contemporary illustration of a two-century old argument.
Though the right to the fruit of one’s labor could also be found in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, where he based this belief on natural rights, one can refer to the both the Old and New Testament for the divine right to do the same. The great pioneer of Western Civilization, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (I Tim. 5:18 KJV). Here Paul cites the ancient Mosaic Law. The principle is metaphorical and illustrates a divine expectation. It need not apply just to the ox. The man who labors is also entitled to compensation for his labor. It is unjust to take from a man that which he has worked for. Government has no right to take the earnings of a laborer any more than the farmer has the right to not compensate the work of his beast—a simple illustration of a natural right. For many to be truly independent and self-governing, he must be free to pursue the relationships which best served his interests.
These very simple concepts of individual freedom given in Reagan’s Inaugural Address can be found with an observant walk through history. They were responsible for America’s prosperity. This is why she exceptional. The creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans was their personal property and government had no authority to take from it or stifle it. If we remove government obstacles, Reagan said, America could be restored to greatness. This was her God-given heritage.
In his closing remarks in Democracy in America Tocqueville said that “Providence has not created mankind entirely independent or entirely free.” He was right. He is dependent and accountable, in equal station, to the “Laws of nature and of Nature’s God.” Will government lead men to servitude or freedom? Freedom. That was Reagan’s and history’s hope.
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