Who Is an American?
Thomas Martin is the O. K. Bouwsma Chair in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Along with his fellow colleagues who are dedicated to the study of the Great Books, he teaches the works of Plato, Aristotle, and G. K. Chesterton.
Ancient Greek wisdom: Man by nature desires to know. Every generation is born ignorant.
So I asked, two sections of twenty-five students in Introduction of Philosophy, if they had read The Declaration of Independence.
In the first section, four answered favorably and in the second, six.
Ten out of fifty.
I then asked who could tell me the origins of their Rights in the Declaration of Independence.
This is fertile ground, a teaching moment: it is important to teach the oldest things to the youngest of people.
Next class, each student is armed with a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Look at these three sentences:
“When in the Course of human events, 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.”
“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.”
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Questions for discussion:
Who are “one people”?
From whom are the Founding Fathers dissolving their political bands?
What truths are self-evident?
From where do Rights originate?
What does “unalienable” mean?
What are the order of the Rights?
Do Rights necessarily have to be in this order?
Who is the Author of Life?
Is the life you claim to be your own, your own?
Is Liberty the same as freedom?
Why is it “the pursuit of Happiness” and not just “Happiness”?
Who is an American by Right?
Who has the Right to be an American?
Given that a person born in the geographical boundaries of the United States is an American, is there also a spiritual sense of what it is to be an American?
Could an American by birth fail to uphold the spirit of America by not treating fellow citizens equally?
Are all men equal in physical and intellectual abilities?
Are all men equal in income?
Are all men equal in education?
Can education be given to man?
If all men are not equal in physical and intellectual abilities, income or achievement in school, in what sense are we equal?
If a person does not hold these Rights to be self-evident, is he still an American and guaranteed these Rights?
What is the difference between all men being equal in identity and all men being equal before their Creator?
Was it wise for Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers to broadcast the Declaration of Independence beyond the shores of America?
What ought Americans do if their Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are denied by the government?
How long did the American Revolution last?
Is there still a revolution going on in America?
It takes several minutes for students to answer from where their Rights come; some say government, someone says God.
If the government were the author of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, what might the government do with the Rights of citizens?
Take them away.
Good, that necessarily follows. This is a teaching moment. Students making connections.
What is the Bill of Rights?
Blank stares. *