of Missouri had an article describing its Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy.
The B.A. degree it offers is based on an examination of ideas and events central to an understanding of the founding of the United States – including tracing the reverberation of those ideas and events through our country’s and world history.
The institute’s premise is that protecting and sustaining a constitutional democracy requires both an in-depth understanding of the challenges our Founding Fathers faced in creating it, and an equally deep study of history illustrating the choices and consequences in managing those challenges.
Our founders studied the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as contemporary Western Europe forms of government, but there was no exact model to follow. There were strong disagreements about the structure and power:
How much power can we give a president without creating a monarch like the one we just rejected? How do we enable representative government without creating mob rule? How do we establish majority rule without majority tyranny (when a majority wants something that contradicts human rights)? How do we protect individual citizens’ rights from government control? How do we handle conflicts between states and a federal government?
Perhaps the most difficult question was what to do about slavery and its blatant contradiction to constitutional democracy.
In the end they chose to ignore slavery because they realized they would never get a constitution approved by southern states – and they had no answers to how to help the south economically transition away from free labor.
The Civil War was the most dramatic historical reverberation of their decision, and we still struggle today with disparities rooted in slavery.
This is why it took 11 years from our Declaration of Independence to create our Constitution. A distinct minority of our founders had to raise, debate and answer these difficult questions with a majority of leaders content to just let each state do their own thing.
It was hard and uncomfortable work. It was also necessary to create our Constitution. This is why the University of Missouri enables students to study this today, with the benefit of history’s lessons about decisions and consequences.
Reading about this reminded me of the movie, “The American President.” A president facing re-election is barraged with character slander from his leading opponent but chooses not to reply. Finally, he’s had it and this is part of what he says:
“Yes, I am a member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). The question is why aren’t you? Their sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights. America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You want free speech? Let’s see, you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil … who’s standing center stage and advocating that which you’ve spent your lifetime opposing.”
Clearly, one price of freedom is tolerance. You are free to state your opinion and so is everyone else. You are free to practice a religion, and so is everyone else – including people who don’t want religion. You are free to not read a book but others are free to read it.
There is a lot of making others’ blood boil going around these days. Some of us self-declare ourselves patriots as opposed to those that disagree with us. Much of our dialogue and conflict is through social media or soundbites, absent of any depth beyond the capacity of a tweet.
The Kinder Institute students debate contemporary issues with civility, looking for answers in our past. They study the origins of our constitutional democracy and trace our founders’ decisions and actions through their historical consequences.
Yes, we are all free to have an opinion. But is our opinion based on facts or an in-depth study of a situation?
Are there historical precedents we can look back to as reinforcement of our position?
If we can’t connect our opinion to facts or history, are we willing to consider our opinion may be based on false assumptions?
If we really want to be patriots and sustain our constitutional democracy, we need to step up our game. We need to study and understand that our conflicts are rooted in our origin. We need to understand the opposing views of our Founding Fathers about irresolvable conflicts. We need to learn from the history they did not have and could only assume.
One thing is clear: Freedom is hard, because it requires wise navigation through impossible choices. Acquiring such wisdom takes effort to study the past and reflect on its lessons.
If we cherish our freedom let’s make a new year’s resolution to do the work. To me, freedom is worth it.