As I cycled east and the guiding principles of my journey fell into place, I became more and more aware of the landscape that flowed beyond me and my Surly. Are there comparable principles to describe this immense plain and the people who inhabit it at a fundamental level? Definitely. The United States, more than any other nation on earth is the triumph of ideals over geography. Our quest for individual rights and mutually agreed government define us; while the extents of our borders have proved fluid over time. At the scale of a nation, we are ripe with potential principles. So, how should I decide what they are? Ideally, our guiding principles would be created by a collective consensus of all of our citizens. But since I was a lone cyclist and not the convener of a Continental Congress, I recollected our history to find statements that could meet the criteria; classic texts that define us in a clear and comprehensive way, yet illustrate our uniqueness.
I selected three. They each proved worthy evaluators of what I observed cycling across America, as well as insightful guides to how we are going astray in Washington,DC.
The first guiding principle I selected is from the Declaration of Independence, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This is our national slogan; it describes us and simultaneously differentiates us from all others. Like all good slogans it is brief and clear, yet conveys the fundamentals. We Americans place a strong emphasis on the individual, and his ability to lead life as he sees fit. We want as much personal freedom as possible without undue intervention. These concepts are so ingrained we often cannot comprehend that others don’t seek the same, yet if we compare our slogan with that ofFrance, say, who coined ‘Liberty, Equalite, Fraternite” during their own revolution, we find it is quite a different animal. True, we both use the term liberty, but the French emphasize equality and brotherhood, more communal attributes than our own individual emphasis on life and the pursuit of happiness. Two hundred plus years later, any analysis of the differences between our two societies would have to admit that by and large we both got what we wanted.
I also chose the opening of the Constitution, “We the people of the United States, in order to from a more perfect Union…” This is an important guiding principle because it reinforces the notion that what defines us is not geography but ideals. The Constitution is the document that describes how we, as individuals, come together to be a nation. Its checks and balances reflect our disdain for centralized authority, yet it acknowledges that we are better off together than on our own, and establishes the parameters by which we collectively govern.
Finally, I selected the guiding principle ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ fromLincoln’sGettysburg address. This phrase crystallizes the notion that we get the government we deserve because ultimately, it is our government. Every citizen of this country has influence; it is not only a right, it is a responsibility. The capacity to affect change brings with it the charge to act responsibly. Our individual freedoms and collective government do not come without effort, we must be involved with our government, or it will no longer be ours.