As Independence Day dawns again, the United States seems disoriented and on edge. The one-two punch of Covid-19 and urban riots, coupled with a sense of economic fragility and impending inflation, has left many feeling drained and nervous about the future. Institutions that once served as the ballast for national well-being have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. Americans brace for the next wave of disruption.
When Twitter, Facebook, and cable news frame the issues of the day, it’s hard not to be discouraged. We are polarized and angry, and the radical Left is to blame—or maybe it’s the fascist Right. The despair is often accompanied by a self-righteous assurance that things would be better if only our political opponents would disappear.
But another America still exists, beyond the sound and fury of Twitter and the Beltway. It lives quietly in homes, where parents try to raise their children well. It exists in schools, where dedicated teachers show up day after day to teach. It flourishes in neighborhoods, community centers, and diners, where neighbors gather for conversation and a shared story. It pervades churches, synagogues, and mosques, where families pause from their busy lives to return thanks to God. Indeed, despite the turmoil and uncertainty, we have much to be grateful for.
If citizenship, properly understood, begins with gratitude, gratitude begins when we recognize that we are the beneficiaries of a great and multifaceted inheritance, as Edmund Burke understood. Writing at the outset of the French Revolution, Burke anticipated with remarkable clarity the disorder and devastation that was coming. Today, American society flirts with revolutionary sentiments that recall the attitudes that motivated the Jacobins. We would do well to listen to Burke’s warnings, for we risk squandering our inheritance—a fateful civilizational move.
Burke criticizes those revolutionaries who have learned “to despise all their predecessors.” Such despising led to “a great departure from the ancient course.” This wholesale rejection of the past represents, for Burke, the height of carelessness mixed with naïveté about the nature of human beings and human societies. He levels his attack at those who willingly ignore what they have inherited: “You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.” For Burke, common possessions—our social and political institutions—flow from an inheritance. To reject that inheritance is to reject the very ideas, forms, customs, practices, and institutions that constitute a people. It is a kind of social and political suicide. Ironically, such a rejection of the past in the name of a better future represents a serious threat to the future in whose name the rejection is made, for “people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
If we truly wish to secure a good, stable, and just future, we should begin with our inheritance: recognizing the good therein; lovingly improving upon that which has been received; and, in due time, passing that improved inheritance on to the next generation. In this way, “the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement.”
What Burke describes is stewardship. When we understand ourselves as stewards, we see that we are inheritors of cultural and political goods that must be cultivated if they are to survive. Civilization is not automatic; a free society is not natural. In fact, political freedom is a remarkable achievement that required generations of sacrifice, experimentation, discipline, and practice. In America, we inherited an English tradition in self-government that developed over centuries. The Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights—not to mention the Bible—stand behind the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. America’s founding documents are unimaginable apart from the principles and practices articulated and fostered by the Founders’ predecessors.
Today, we enjoy the blessings of freedom won by the sacrifices of our forebears, who hoped that their offspring would live free. When we take these things for granted, when we act as if political freedom is a natural occurrence, or a right that can simply be demanded; and when we believe that life in a free society entails only benefits to be enjoyed and no responsibilities to be shouldered, we are consuming finite cultural capital.
Stewardship of this cultural and political inheritance means living gratefully and responsibly in such a way that we strengthen our institutions and pass them along to the next generation. We must seek to inculcate in ourselves and our children the habits and practices necessary for sustaining and improving what we have been given. Ignoring this task means squandering the very things that make a free society possible.
On Independence Day, set aside some time to remember and celebrate America’s founding principles. Let us recommit ourselves to the responsibility of upholding those principles with fidelity and steadfastness born of gratitude. Let us take seriously the responsibilities, and not just the rights, of citizenship. Americans are inheritors of great but fragile gifts; gratitude should foster a commitment to steward them well.
Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images