What Is America? Hamilton and Reagan Got It

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What is America? What is this country fundamentally about? By and large, pundits and politicians on the right and the left don’t seem to get it. Some come close, but there is a widespread failure to explain why the Founders established this republic.

On this date in history, two of the clearest expressions of the American ideal were first articulated.

On October 27, 1787, a young Alexander Hamilton, writing under the pen name Publius, published the first Federalist paper in New York’s Independent Journal. In the very first paragraph, he laid out the implications for “mankind” of the momentous choice before the American people:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

At stake in the debate to ratify the Constitution was more than “your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness”—important as they were and remain: Americans were embarking on an experiment in self-government that would, if successful, vindicate man before all the princes, kings, and assorted thinkers who had firmly denied that men could govern themselves.

At the heart of the Founding, as James Madison would later explain in Federalist No. 39, was “that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all of our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

One hundred and seventy-seven years later, on October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan, a former actor who had only recently started dabbling in politics, delivered a speech entitled “A Time for Choosing” in support of Senator Barry Goldwater’s presidential run. The choice Reagan asked his audience to make was not simply between Goldwater and LBJ but between two views of America—one rooted in the Founding, the other in progressive liberalism:

This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Reagan sought a counterrevolution against the Progressive faith in the rule of experts and the rise of the administrative state. He sought to reestablish the Founders’ vision of republican self-government.

Nearly 50 years later, the world has changed, in no small part thanks to Reagan. The choice however, remains the same: Will we uphold the Constitution’s republican framework of limited government and continue to prove that men and women are capable of governing themselves and running their own lives? Or will we embrace the Progressive faith in the rule of benevolent experts—unelected, unaccountable, and largely unknown—and entrust them with the care to issue regulations governing every aspect of our lives?

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