Thursday, July 17, 2008

We the People

We the People.” Why is this particular phrase in the U.S. Constitution highlighted with a larger font size and a place of privilege as the document's opening text?

Politically, the phrase changed history. Just a century prior, Louis XIV claimed during the height of absolutism: “I am the State.” In a complete reversal, this document claimed that the people constituted the state, not the DNA of a particular family.

Several “thinkers” contributed to this revolution, among them, Thomas Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thomas Paine, but perhaps none more important than John Locke. John Locke formulated the idea of the social contract and championed the notion of “government with the consent of the governed.” According to Locke, man, in his natural state, would contract with society and choose to be governed. Civilization would then take its natural course.

If government breaches the contract, men could rightfully replace the government. The premise here seems to be that society happens, after all, we are social beings. Surprisingly, we are not one big happy family of earthlings. As it would happen, all men have not assented to the same social contract. There is sufficient diversity among human beings to make the experience of one society very different from another. While Locke’s social contract is about creating legitimate government, we often lose sight of the other parties involved in the contract—the remaining individuals in the same society. They too are an important part of the proposition.

So how do we decide with whom to contract? Culture; Identity; Because we see ourselves in others and wish to live a familiar lifestyle. The premise underlying John Locke’s theory is culture. Culture is the natural force that leads us to society, permitting one to contract with government and the rest of society. We choose a particular society, not because of the government, but because of the other members of that society that will be party to the same contract. How do we discriminate between parties with which to contract? Our natural sense of culture. Culture is a critical variable in the formula for a successful and health democracy.

So, in the U.S. Constitution, who is it that is contracting with society, who are “We the People?”

Americans? Why not draft “We Americans?” In a document so carefully contrived, the use of “We the People” in lieu of other options cannot be coincidence. Would “We Americans” not have engendered greater cultural solidarity and manifested a new citizenship to a nascent sovereign state? It would say we are Americans, a Nation, not just a ragtag collection of people! Why not highlight “of the United States” also?

The “We Americans” option likely did not jive because the founding fathers had not a clue what it meant. Virginians were Virginians, Marylanders, Marylanders, and such. State culture was far stronger than federal culture. Life, values, etc, from state to state, north from south was very different despite having settled the continent over a century earlier.

What about other human beings on the planet? How do they identify themselves? The Spanish Constitution, for example, begins its preamble referring with “The Spanish Nation.” Well, what does that mean? You know. Put yourself in a vacuum, and erase your knowledge of their statehood and status as a Member State of the EU. The idea of a Spaniard still survives. They are a civilization, a Nation, a culture that to date has survived war, famine, invasion, atrocities, several forms of government, and several constitutions. Our sense of Spanish people does not hinge on their statehood. We naturally make sense of the world by grouping people, and things for that matter. (Note: There are distinct Nations/people/cultures living within Spain too.)

As I surveyed other constitutions, I found repeated use of both Nation and “the People of.” In romance languages, however, “the People of” can be directly translated to mean Nation. In a slightly different use of the language, the recently failed European Constitution’s preamble highlighted the need to preserve the cultural legacy of the several nations. You see, cultural elements do indeed pervade human political instruments and institutions.

So, for better or worse, are Americans a Nation like others? How could we be a Nation if we are a melting pot or a land of immigrants? An American can be many things, a native of Anglo-Saxon descent, black, a second generation purebred of another Nation who preserves the culture of the mother country, or a newly arrived and naturalized immigrant trying to live the American dream. None less American than the other, right? Everyone adheres to the same civic prescriptions in the U.S. Constitution, but beyond that . . . . The United States is a country, but a Nation? Comments.


Sep said...

Interesting observations. I think, at least in the "what country are you from" aspect, we can relate to each other as Americans if you are born here. If you're in Europe, you are the American. Obviously if you're in Texas, you're a Marylander. So if a Chilean is in America, but wants to be an American, it is up to that individual how much one wants to become part of the culture. Is that foreigner here to stay? Are they proud to be here? Do they want to refer to themselves as American? Not everyone is proud to be part of a particular culture.

I did think about this at the concert I was at last night. The band O.A.R. is widely known as being from Maryland, Rockville specifically. It is in many of their songs. Their tickets are relatively difficult to get in the Maryland area... is that because they play better shows in Maryland? I don't think so. Is it culture? Do we just like our local bands better because we have some sort of connection with them; if we just met them on the street (and didn't know where they were from) could we somehow know that they were better? So why do we give them any preferential treatment?

Separately, a thought on marriage, specifically for women. Most women change their last name when they get married. What a change! Their identity! Their culture? I have been very impressed with how quickly and seemingly easily my wife has gone from a simple, jewish name, to an obvious german one. She feels the same, but to the outside world, she might be thought of differently to people that she has never met before.

So with these thoughts, we can all associate with some culture, but we have a choice with how far we want to associate with it. In the U.S. constitution, our framers were trying to unite those that wanted to rebel against England, that was our culture. People had other desires as well; a new start, land, gold; but there was still a commonality, which really bonds a culture together.

Nico said...

Thank you for your interesting comment Sep.

Your observation regarding culture and third parties is very good. I would only encourage you to look closer at understanding the root of certain thoughts/emotions/behaviors that derive from our association to a culture.

It would seem, from your comments, that culture is a contrived association, that is, that individuals choose to associate with a particular culture and then cultivate it thereof. As this blog develops, I hope to further discuss the many dimensions of culture. In doing so, I expect to find that indoctrination, especially in cultural terms, is a very powerful instinctual force designed to help humans to survive. What I am trying to articulate is that a particular culture(s) is within us whether we like it or not and make us who we are.

To bring this home to one of your points--a wife's name change--the question is why? Her culture and individuality are instructing her decision to do this. Why? Which part of her culture is it that led to this decision? To what origin can we trace this particular cultural behavior?