Sources of American Character Identity, Research Paper Example
Words: 6659Research Paper
America’s cultural heritage and legal history comprise a paradigm through which a specific character identity emerged. This identity is based on viewing government and individualism from a particular perspective which is best understood as a form of social contract. Additionally, the American character identity has shaped and influenced a long and unique history of foreign policy at the center of which stands an imperative to maintain and preserve the traditions of American democracy. Another very interesting component of the American character identity is that it is heavily influenced by philosophical and legal ideals that are preserved in well-known documents. The history of America is also the history of the evolution of the American character identity, which actually has roots beyond the founding of America, proper.
In documents such as the Mayflower Compact, The Albany Plan of Union, and the Declaration of Independence a strong line of persistence exists for the pursuit of the aforementioned social contract. Furthermore, the United States Constitution stands as the most eloquent and important of all social contract documents. The following discussion will show how these documents, coupled together with the profoundly defining Monroe Doctrine, helped to forge a uniquely American character identity that is founded on legal ideals as well as philosophical convictions. The common denominator that ties the evolution of the American character identity together is the dual pursuit of lawful social order and the preservation of individual freedom.
Long before the advent of the United States Constitution, a political compact was drawn up among those European expatriates who were to become the first to establish a colony in America. Less people are aware of the Mayflower Compact than are aware of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, the Mayflower Compact stands as a powerfully significant document in regard to the American character identity. The main reason that this is the case is because the Mayflower Compact is an example of a social contract between a proposed community and its individual inhabitants. Technically, the Mayflower Compact was comprised of “an agreement providing for the temporary government of Plymouth Colony.”1 The temporary government had a specific purpose: “to frame just and equal laws for the general good of the colony.”2 This compact remained the overall framework of law for the Plymouth Colony for a decade and was the inspiration for the evolution of all subsequent laws in the colony.
Already in this sparse articulation of the foundation for government, an aspect of the American character identity begins to emerge. One key characteristic of the American identity is a sense that laws and justice should serve the good of the people, rather than creating a legal framework where citizens were helpless servants under Royal decree. Another emergent characteristic is the desire for the creation of rational laws. Furthermore, as Drake and Nelson’s book States’ Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History (1999) points out, the Mayflower Comprised the original document of social contract that is associated with the American continent. This is of profound significance because “The signees both created the government by their own consent and agreed to run the government by consenting to its laws and leaders.”3 Although there is, of course, no hint of a Constitutional Democracy in the Mayflower Compact, the idea that individuals enter into a consensual relationship with government indicates that each individual is assumed to have free-will.
The American character identity is, in fact, founded on certain very profound, but quite straightforward principles. One of these straightforward, fundamental principles is that liberty is a universal right that is granted to all individuals. The Mayflower Compact, while stopping-short of formally announcing the rights that all people are entitled to possess at least indicates that government exists not to rule over people but to serve and protect them. It also indicates that individuals are born with liberty and give their consent to be government through a form social contract. The reason that all of these attributes are part of the American character identity is because they are integral aspects of a free and democratic society. The American character identity involves viewing the rights of individuals as being God-given and ordained in nature.
Similarly, the Mayflower Compact references the importance of viewing individual rights and the consent to be govern as being part of a spiritual or religious paradigm. The wording of the Compact makes this clear: “”Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.”4 Although it is true that the United States constitution calls for the separation of church and state, the reality is that the American character identity is still based on the idea of religious freedom and the accompanying idea that freedom is, in itself, a right of nature. The phrasing of the Mayflower Compact shows a similar, underlying impulse for the creation of a government and political system.
Of course this is natural for a colony such as Plymouth that was founded on overt religiousaffiliation. However, this fact should not obscure the fact that the Mayflower Compact provided for some of the core values that later became intimately associated with the American character. In fact, puritan society, and particularly the Puritan conception of compacts in general are probably less oppressive and steeped in rigid dogma than is popularly believed. This fact is worth exploring in slightly more detail because it makes the relationship between the Mayflower Compact and later democratic ideals evident in America much more obvious. For example, according to Peter Beck in his article, “Early New England: A Covenanted Society,” (2007) the Puritan conception of a covenant or compact was based in the Old Testament but retained a great deal of flexibility. Beck notes that compacts in the Puritan mind signified a convergence of unity and diversity.
For example, in regard to a political compact, the unity exists in the consent to law and the establishment of a community and society, while the diversity resides in the preservation of individual liberty and free will. In regard to the specific way that Puritans regarded compacts, beck writes “The unity he finds in the concept of covenanting, a concept driven by the Puritan understanding of the OT …The diversity, he argues, manifests itself in the covenanters’ willingness to adopt old forms and create new ones…”5 So the idea of a compact of covenant was meant to be adaptable to many forums and possibilities. It is an open-ended, pragmatic ideal of social and political significance that also informs the American character identity from its inception to the present day.
The preceding evidence suggests that the Mayflower Compact prefigures many of the subsequent legal and cultural ideas that formed the foundation for the evolution of the American character identity. It might be more accurate to view the legal and cultural contents of the Mayflower Compact the soil from which the later garden of American democracy bloomed. However, the fact remains that the ideals and practical principles of the mayflower Compact reveal several of the core attributes of the American identity, attributes that influence and are influenced by politics, but which have even deeper social and cultural repercussions.
The Albany Plan of Union
If the Mayflower Compact is a relatively obscure document the prefigures the American character identity, Benjamin Franklin’s “Albany Plan of Union” is a truly obscure document which also shows the foundation of modern democracy. The plan was put forward by Franklin when he was in his late forties, in the year 1754 when Franklin served as a colonial delegate in Albany, New York. At this time, the French and Indian War was underway. Franklin proposed that the American colonies should be granted a unified government, with the war as a pretext for the necessity of such a move. Franklin’s strategy was to lay the groundwork for self-rule in the colonies, but his Albany plan stops well-short of declaring independence from Great Britain.
Nevertheless, the document features many key components of what would later flourish as American constitutional democracy. Furthermore, Franklin’s proposal reveals a good number of the philosophical and political ideals that allowed for the evolution of the American character identity. What Franklin proposed was essentially a form of government that allowed for self-governance while remaining aligned with the British monarchy. Franklin’s plan is exceedingly simple when compared to the more sophisticated and highly complex Constitution and its accompanying Bill of Rights. Nonetheless, Franklin forwarded a plan that would have essentially created a limited democracy in colonial America.
Some of the features of Franklin’s proposal would, in fact, seem very familiar to the typical American. For example, Franklin’s first article, which describes the executive branch of his proposed government, asserts “That the said general government be administered by a President-General, to be appointed and supported by the crown.”6 The conception of a President-General is obviously much different than the modern conception of President, but the underlying idea is a greater amount of autonomy for the colonies, or in other words, a moving away from Royalist rule. A careful distinction must be made here, however, and that is this: Franklin’s ideas about autonomy for the American colonies stopped well short of directly opposing the monarchy of Great Britain, whereas the tradition of American character identity is one that rejects a royalist order.
One good example of just how important of a role this distinction plays is Franklin’s specification about the Grand Council and its speaker. Franklin proposes “That the Grand Council have power to choose their speaker; and shall neither be dissolved, prorogued, nor continued sitting longer than six weeks at one time, without … the special command of the crown.”7 Franklin’s reservation of the highest authority was for the crown. That said, it would be incorrect to decide that Franklin’s proposal was anti-democratic or outside of the traditions that helped create the American character identity. Even in the statement quoted above, certain democratic ideals are evident, most notably the idea that the Grand Council has the ability to vote for their own speaker. This is a truly democratic procedure and shows that Franklin in many ways was using his proposal as a form of “soft rebellion” against the British.
This is even more evident in additional points of Franklin’s proposal. In regard to war-making and treaty-making powers, franklin proposed that the new unified colonial government have complete discretion over these matters in regard to Native American affairs. Franklin writes in article ten that: “That the President-General, with the advice of the Grand Council, hold or direct all Indian treaties, in which the general interest of the Colonies may be concerned; and make peace or declare war with Indian nations.”8 Here there is a direct move toward establishing the groundwork for a power that is distinct from the Crown. Franklin, in making the new colonial government responsible for wars and treaties implicitly grants the colonies status as a semi-independent nation.
Perhaps the best way to regard Franklin’s proposal is as a “bridge” between the strictly royalist idea of government that formed the colonial period and the advent of true democracy. Franklin introduced democratic ideas under the semblance of maintaining allegiance to the British Crown. Franklin, in article fifteen, also provided for the new government’s capacity to raise and equip armies. The provision allowed for the recruitment of men from any colony, but stopped short of granting automatic impression. Instead, careful conditions were placed on the potential for any kind of military draft. Franklin proposes that the Grand Council “pay soldiers and build forts for the defence of any of the Colonies, and equip vessels of force to guard the coasts and protect the trade on the ocean, lakes, or great rivers.”9 The provision for granting an army carries an implicit threat to British authority. What Franklin is actually proposing is that the colonies unite to create a semi-democratic form of government with a prototypical President that is capable of making active warfare and raising armies for its self-defense.
Another area of particular attention that Franklin shows is for the new nation’s economy. Obviously, for Franklin the two most important elements of any nation were its war-making authority and its economic power. Under Franklin’s proposal the new unified colonies would have a regulated economy that was, for all intents and purposes, independent of the British economy and had roots in the new government’s own issuing of financial policy. At this point it is quite clear how Franklin’s proposal connects to the development of both American democracy and the American character identity because the idea of war-making power and economic policy being the primary duties of government is an enduring part of both. While modern observers may find it hard to separate Franklin’s obvious profession of allegiance to the British Crown from his more innovative, democratic ideas, there is no doubt that his proposal forms a bridge from one political era in America’s history to another.
The Declaration of Independence
While Franklin’s proposal refrained from an outright demand for freedom from the British Monarchy, the Declaration of Independence, obviously, crossed this line and did so with flagrant disregard for Royal authority. Here, in this very famous document, we have the first explicit statements that define the legal precepts that make the evolution of the American character identity possible. We are no longer dealing with the root influences of American democracy, but with the foundations of American democracy themselves. It is not an overstatement to suggest that elements of the American character identity are evident in every sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The opening paragraph, itself, contained several important components of the American identity in such a way as to encompass both its legal and cultural ramifications.
The first line of the Declaration shows the most fundamental aspect of the American identity. That is, as previously mentioned that the rights of the individual are both God-given and natural as well as being evident to rationality. The line begins “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”10 In just this brief, opening phrase the fundamental principles of the American identity are given a legal and cultural justification. The phrase indicates that the truths are “self-evident” and therefore they are given by nature and known through rational means.
The rights of the individual are given by God and cannot be taken away through and moral or lawful means. The right to pursue freedom and personal fulfillment means that the purpose of the common individual was not to serve the King or even the government. Instead, the implication is that it is the government’s duty to serve and protect the “unalienable” rights of the individual. This beginning phrase forms what might be considered one “arm” of the American character identity, which is the arm of individual liberty. The next phrase of the opening statement comprises the other arm of that identity: “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”11 At this point we have not only reached the point of genuine revolution, but we have arrived at a clear picture of what the other arm of American self- identity represents: the arm of the popular will. It is important to realize that the two arms: that of personal freedom and that of popular will operate in a complimentary fashion.
It is also important to realize that the preserving of these two aspects of the American character identity is guaranteed by the legal basis of the government and associated documents, but the practical application of the laws is something that transcends pure legislation and runs into the deep psyche of the population. This is why the Declaration mentions that fact that any government can and should be opposed even with violence if it reaches a point where it no longer serves the needs of the people. The Declaration of Independence is likely the first political document in the history of the world that emphasized the rights of the common person over those of the elites and– even above the government itself.
In fact, it is by an appeal to the popular will that the Declaration makes one of its most stinging accusations against King George. It is crucial to keep in mind that the purpose of the Declaration was not only to inform the Crown that the colonies had decided to break away to form their own nation, but to give the reason why in as clear a fashion as possible. Seen from this perspective, the central justification for the rebellion was that the King had abused the populace. More specifically, his policies had resulted in a worsening of conditions for those who resided in the colonies. These same people were allowed no legal or political remedy for the conditions they found themselves in. Therefore one of the accusations made against the King in the Declaration is that “HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.”12 The obstruction of the popular will is given as the King’s main offense.
This idea is also shown in the following article where the Declaration accuses the King of personally disrupting lawful democratic process. The Declaration states that the King “has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.”13 Again it is the people who of primary concern and it is the people who are to be the agent of rebellion against the King. These two facts are extremely significant in regard to the American character identity. As mentioned above, the two most important aspects of the American identity are the idea of personal freedom and the idea of the popular will. The Declaration of Independence offers both the philosophical and cultural justification for the advent of the American cultural identity.
This identity is not only unique to America; it is exceptional to the world because it indicates a way to resolve the age-old conflict between social order and individual freedom. That way is comprised largely of what can be called the social contract in action, but it is also accomplished through the establishment of laws that preserve the natural rights of the individual. Furthermore, the resolution of the conflict between social order and personal freedom is resolved through the creation of a political and cultural climate that fosters the moral and philosophical attitudes that are able to reconcile what appear to be contradictory needs. Doing so means that the nation’s character identity emerges out of pragmatic need and resolves a challenge that has faced the human race throughout recorded history. The Declaration shows, clearly, that America was destined to be the first nation in the world to truly step out of Monarchism and put the needs of the people above those of the government or the ruling class.
The Constitution of the United States of America
While the Declaration of Independence stated the legal and philosophical basis for democracy in a very explicit manner, it is the American Constitution that spells out the specific legal edicts and rights that comprise American government. For this reason it is easy to overlook the cultural influence of the Constitution. In fact, this document as much as any purely cultural or populist works defines the American character identity. This is particularly true about the section of the Constitution that is commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights. These ten amendments to the Constitution were intended, collectively, to reinforce the federalist ideals of the nation. For this reason, the Bill of Rights is associated with substantiating personal freedom, restricting the potential for the abuse of government power, and the allocating of specific powers and responsibilities to the individual states.
The Bill of Rights in its entirety represents an advocacy for the preservation of the two essential rights: personal freedom and the popular will. As such, this is the section of the Constitution that comes closest to directly enumerate the qualities of the American character identity. For example the first article of the Bill of Rights is meant to limit the government’s expansion of power and to ensure religious freedom. The second article is meant to preserve the people’s right to remain armed. The association between these two articles follows the same correspondence as the two core components of the American identity. In other words, the First Amendment is a strong proclamation against the over-expansion of government and therefore adheres to the first principle of the American identity: individual liberty. The Second Amendment relates to the social contract aspect of American democracy, specifically to the ability of the states and the populace itself to remove a government that falls into corruption. When government breaches the social contract, the population has a right and obligation to abolish the government in order to preserve the inherent rights of the people.
At this point it has probably become quite clear that the American character identity comprises a set of convictions that are direct counterparts to the legal principles of formal documents such those which have been discussed in this essay. It has also probably become quite clear that the cultural bastions of democratic ideals are both the reason behind the creation of formal systems. This means that to some extent the true articulation of democratic ideals resides in the cultural identity of the nation even more so than in its political institutions. This is, in itself, one of the more compelling attributes of American exceptionalism. In fact, it is not only possible but likely that America is the first nation in world history to secure its political and philosophical doctrines in the wide population rather than in some restricted, esoteric hierarchy.
This feeds into the American character identity in a way that is very similar to the way that blood functions in the human body. The idea of populist rule is as widespread throughout the body politic of America and as vital. America is a nation that depends on the participation of its people on both a political and social level. The democratic tradition extends far beyond the practice of regular voting or even participation in community civics. It is actually a part of the self-identity of everyone who enters into the social contract of the democratic government. This is verified by the Bill of Rights which systematically lists the rights of the population and imposes strict limitations on the obtrusiveness of government.
This latter phrase is intended to convey the difference between obtrusiveness and mere power. Although the American Constitution is designed to limit the power of government and to provide for a separation and balance of powers, the Bill of Rights goes a step further. The first ten amendments to the Constitution provide for restrictions that are deliberately intended to stop government from impinging on the rights of the states and the individual. The importance of reserving state’s rights is, obviously, to create a solid line of limitation to the power of the Federal government. The United States was not designed, constitutionally, to become a “top-heavy,” highly centralized political system. Rather, the constitutional democracy of America was designed to facilitate a republic that tolerated state’s rights and envisioned the federal government as, first and foremost, a necessary evil whose primary responsibility was to provide for the national defense. The original conception of American democracy excluded the idea of sacrificing state’s rights to promote the power of the federal government.
Again, when examined closely, the Bill of Rights is actually a collection of articles which are designed to protect the common citizen from the potential tyranny of the federal government. For example, Article 3 states “”No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”14Although the federal government is intended to provide for national defense and the defense of the country is of primary importance, this article of the Constitution creates a legal obstruction for the potential obtrusiveness of government. The focal point of Article 3 is that it protects the people from a potential abuse of power by government, even during a time of war
Similarly, Article Four protects the common citizen from having their homes and personal property from being seized or searched without a search warrant that is issued by a court officer and based on probable cause. This is one of the articles in the Constitution that is so well-ingrained in the American mind that it is most certainly a part of the American character identity. Whether or not the abuse of the criminal justice system in America exceeds the legal protection of this article of the Constitution is debatable. What is far less debatable is the fact that this article, along with the other articles in the Bill of Rights are intended to act as a bulwark against the erosion of the people’s rights and freedom. In the case of Article Four, the privacy and security of the common citizen is placed above the authority and power of the police. This is because the government in America is designed to offer protection for individual rights that are, as previously mentioned, considered to be God-given and endemic to nature.
When looked at closely what the Bill of Rights reveals is a plan to severely curtail the purview of government as well as drastically curtailing its power and influence. In fact, close inspection of the Constitution invites the idea that the framers not only anticipated the potential over-reach of the federal government, they obsessed over it. When such a view is brought into the discussion it also illuminates the functionality of indoctrinating the democratic ideal into the populace through cultural identity as well as legal protection. In Article Ten, the absolute primacy of the power of the states and the people is stated in as obvious and unambiguous terms possible. The article reads “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”15 This article overtly states that the federal government is entitled only to those powers that are enumerated in the Constitution.
Of course, as every American knows, the Constitution is the most important document in American legal and social history. It is also an extremely potent influence over the American character identity and the self-identity of most Americans. For example, when the typical American quotes a platitude such as “innocent until proven guilty,” they are in fact referencing articles in the Constitution that guarantee individuals specific rights in regard to the prosecution of judicial law. For example, Article Eightcompels that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”16 These are protections designed to limit the abuse of the judicial and criminal justice systems. Another example is Article Six which dictates the limits and means of the state and the federal government in term of criminal prosecutions. At the same time that these articles are meant to comprehensively address the complex issues of justice and social protection, the articles were also designed to be as unambiguous and universally applicable as is humanly possible.
So, for example, a passage in Article Six reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…”17 This describes the means and system by which all criminal prosecutions are to be handled throughout the nation. However, at the same time, the article reserves power to the state’s by mandating that crimes be tried in the state where they were committed. The individual states are responsible for dealing with the crime that occurs under their jurisdiction. The Constitution mandates that criminal trials be pursued with the needs and welfare of the accused being a significant factor in the way the judicial system is designed to function.
The American character identity is strongly anchored in these legal precedents and philosophies. Most Americans pride themselves on being law-abiding while at the same time believing they are free to pursue their individual dreams and ambitions. The limitations that are placed on government by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are they to ensure a corresponding degree of freedom and liberty for all American citizens. Once again, what we see with the legal background of American democracy is a standard that creates the most advantageous environment for a cultural steeped in democratic values to flourish.
Some people might reject the proposition that there is a correspondence between the legal and cultural dimensions of democracy in America. According to this counter-argument, the legal system and the laws themselves are present in order to mandate democracy and simultaneously ensure social order. This perspective suggests that a democratic system is possible without any kind of cultural identity being generated or even being necessary. This kind of view typically views American culture as steeped in such wide diversity that a specific American cultural identity is impossible to attain. There are so many sub-cultures and foreign influences over life and laws in America, according to the counterargument, that nothing resembling an American character identity exists. Therefore it is necessary to create a judicial system and a set of laws that set standards for democracy and defend its institutions.
This hypothetical alternate viewpoint places the importance of law and government above that of the populace. The laws are, themselves, the highest achievement of the state, not the relative happiness or fulfillment of the citizens. If necessary, under this vision, individuals or even entire groups might be overlooked, or even ground down by the state in pursuit of upholding the legal tenants of democracy. Obviously, it does not require a person of superior intelligence to figure out that such an approach to the political construction of a free society could only lead to tyranny. The fact that laws and government institutions are placed above the welfare of the people almost assures that those same laws and institutions will be abused and that justice will be greatly subverted. Another consequence of placing laws and the institutions of government above the welfare of the people is that government becomes rigid and locked into legal precedents and laws that may become functionally obsolete but systematically ingrained.
That said, there is still merit in the observation that no system can function perfectly or without some degree of corruption. The main question in this regard is: what system of self-rule stands the best chance of reducing incidents of injustice and corruption? If the choice is limited to being between a system that places laws and systems above people or one that places the popular will above laws and government, the answer that was chosen by the framers of the American Constitution was inarguably the latter. As is evidenced by the previous references to the Bill of Rights, great emphasis was placed on protecting the American people from the potential abuses of political systems and the institutions of government. If the previously quoted articles are not abundantly clear enough, Article Nine reinforces the conviction clearly. It states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”18 In every respect, the Bill of Rights elevates the needs and rights of the people above the power of laws and the government.
It is necessary to keep the earlier discussion of social contract theory in mind as the Bill of Rights is examined. This is because the Bill of Rights reflects the idea that, at times of extreme corruption and breach of the social contract, it is necessary for the citizens to unite against government to change or abolish it. The conclusion is that the emphasis on protecting the inherent rights of the people is not only a way of preserving democratic processes but is also a method of instilling the true power of democracy in the cultural rather than systemic roots of the population. Anyone who examines the Bill of Rights article by article will come away with the firm realization that the framers of the American Constitution distrusted government. If they displayed a faith in anything it was not government, church, or even the documents of the Revolution themselves, but in the American people, for whom the entirety of the American democracy was created to protect.
Those who are looking for a way to understand what qualities comprise the American character should begin with the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This is because these written declarations provide the legal framework for the cultural evolution of a genuinely democratic society. As such, the Constitution and the Bill of rights also indicate the primary origins of American exceptionalism, indicating the first time in the history of humanity where the rights of the people were elevated above those of the laws and government itself.
The Monroe Doctrine
American foreign policy is also shaped by the legal and cultural traditions that inform the American identity. One of the key components of American identity is, as mentioned earlier in this examination, the dual values of self-defense and the preservation of individual freedom. Specific policies that have been historical significant in America’s past remain relevant to its present and future. One of these policies is the Monroe Doctrine which grew out of a foreign policy that was pursued by President Monroe during the early nineteenth century. The doctrine was originally made public as a “principle of American foreign policy enunciated in President James Monroe’s message to Congress, Dec. 2, 1823.”19 While many people may understand the doctrine, loosely, as a policy that dictates that America claims political control and influence over everything that happens in the American hemisphere. In other words, it is a doctrine that grows out of the American concern for maintaining a robust defense.
While this understanding of the Monroe doctrine is partially correct, it falls short of understanding many crucial components of what the doctrine actually meant and still means to this day in terms of the American character identity. For one thing, the doctrine grew out of specific historical conditions, particularly a clash with Russia about territory in northwest America and the perception on behalf of the American government that the Americas should be closed to colonization from European nations. The doctrine was articulated by then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who “expressed the principle that the American continents were no longer to be considered as a field for colonization by European powers. That principle was incorporated verbatim in the presidential message.”20 The Monroe Doctrine actually pertained to rebuffing the Imperialistic ambitions of foreign powers, particularly those in Europe who had grown to view the Americas as being potential colonies.
At this point it is very important to stop for a moment and highlight the fact that the Monroe Doctrine, while being an articulated philosophy of American foreign policy never existed as a ratified law or policy in terms of gaining official sanction. In fact the term “Monroe Doctrine” was not added to common use until the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite it being one of the most influential foreign policy strategies in American history, the Monroe Doctrine “was not ratified by any congressional legislation; it did not obtain a place in international law.”21 Is it accurate to call the Monroe doctrine itself an emanation of American character identity? Obviously such a classification suits the doctrine more than the label of law or mandate. If it is true that the Monroe Doctrine was driven more by the instilled cultural ideals of democracy than by legal justification, what does that tell us about the American character identity?
The answer is that it tells us quite a bit about the American character identity. What it tells us first is that the protection of American interests and the preservation of democratic traditions is something that drives the national identity of the country. Secondly, the Monroe Doctrine tells us that the American identity is one that views military might as a method by which to secure peace and freedom for its own citizens rather than as a means to invade and colonize foreign lands. It makes no difference what value is placed on the Monroe Doctrine from a strategic standpoint. It may have functioned as the strategic key to stability over the past century-plus or it may have led to an overall weakening of America’s status as a world power. The end-result is the same when viewed from a cultural perspective. The Monroe Doctrine emerged from the American character identity in the manner touched on above and it has remained in the forefront of the common American’s perception of foreign policy over the intervening years.
Many polls have been taken during times of war and during the build-up to war in America over the past decades; these polls clearly show that Americans display little or no support for wars that are not perceived to be directly tied to the preservation of democratic ideals. Support for military action rises in direct proportion to how necessary that action is judged to be in order to preserve freedom and democracy, first for Americans and second for other around the world. It is a unique capacity of the American character that the use of military power is viewed primarily as a method by which to extend individual liberty rather than as a mode of conquest and imperialism. Of course there are those who argue that America is an imperialist nation and that it does use its military to invade and conquer other countries. This argument may have some merit, but is on the whole specious when considered against the long-measure of history.
Instead of acting as an imperialist nation, America has traditionally followed the precepts that are part of the Monroe Doctrine which dictates that America generate a strong foreign policy and military policy to ensure that it retains the necessary influence to protect the rights of its population on a global scale. As such the Monroe Doctrine like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is an extension of the primary pillar of American character identity: that of the natural right of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such a policy is not only determinant of how America will respond to the actions of other nations, but it exerts a strong influence over the way that Americans view themselves. Stated simply, Americans view themselves as the custodians of liberty and the democratic tradition. This is a view that has been designed into the culture and legal system of their nation.
- The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (Columbia University Press, 2013)
- Frederick D. Drake and Lynn R. Nelson, eds., States’ Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 12.
- Frederick D. Drake and Lynn R. Nelson, eds., States’ Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 13.
- Peter Beck, “Early New England: A Covenanted Society,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 3 (2007).
- 6-9. Franklin, Benjamin.Albany Plan of Union 1754.www.avalonlaw.yale.com; accessed 10-29-13; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/albany.asp.
- 10-11. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America (Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1979), 1.
- 12-13. Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 31.
- 15 -18.Ibid., 32.
- 19-21. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (Columbia University Press, 2013), s.v. “Monroe Doctrine.”
Beck, Peter. “Early New England: A Covenanted Society.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 3 (2007): 647+. The Columbia Encyclopedia.6th ed. Columbia University Press, 2013.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1979.
Drake, Frederick D., and Lynn R. Nelson, eds. States’ Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Franklin, Benjamin. Albany Plan of Union 1754.www.avalonlaw.yale.com; accessed 10-29-13; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/albany.asp.
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