For a few years when I was a young man, I studied Marxism, criticized capitalism, understood class conflict, and believed in redistributing wealth. I rejected patriotism and God. All this went on inside my head. It's how I thought about economics, politics, and humanity for a few dismal years of my intellectual life.
At the same time, in the real world, I conducted my successful psychiatric practice very differently. I ran my practice responsibly as a small business according to basic American values. I collected fees; occasionally reduced fees when someone in need was unable to pay; held my patients completely responsible for themselves as individuals in developing the direction of their own lives; helped them pursue their own life, liberty, property and happiness; did nothing to control their lives or to make their choices for them; and supported family values in raising children. I also organized a reform movement in psychiatry that continues to fight to protect individuals from the more oppressive aspects of my profession.
At the time, I did not fully grasp that I was helping my patients to live like Americans and that they were learning to do so successfully, increasing their own happiness and that of everyone they touched in their lives including family and community.
Over the years, I finally grew to understand that the same principles that worked so well in my practice and in my reform work were the same principles taught by our founders and expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It's all about protecting and promoting the freedom of individuals to pursue their own lives in a responsible fashion.
In recent years, starting with the end of the Bush administration and escalating with the beginning of the Obama administration, I became concerned at how fast these values are being eroded. After publishing two more books on psychiatry in 2008--I've written about twenty-plus dozens of scientific articles--I turned to writing directly about the lessons from our founders, and especially about the nature of good government and its relationship to the good life.
I decided to write a book in simple straightforward language that would introduce adults and youth to the principles of our national heritage and how to apply them to both their political thinking and to their everyday lives.
I made surprising discoveries and learned some new emphases for myself in the process of researching what became Wow, I'm an American! How to Live Like Our Nation's Heroic Founders.
First, the founders were incredibly thoughtful people who read widely and who consciously tried to combine Judeo-Christian traditions and faith with Enlightenment philosophy and rationality. Although most Americans did not have much access to books, literacy was very high, and people commonly read newspapers and pamphlets and listened to sermons that dealt with politics. Many corresponded voluminously with each other. Americans drew heavily on the Bible to justify their yearnings for freedom, including the story of Exodus. In the Golden Rule they found justification for democracy.
One copy of Thomas Paine's Common Sense was printed for every four Americans. Political debate was much more profound and philosophical than nowadays. We need to restart out political life with the vigorous intellectual energy that characterized our founders.
Second, individual freedom, and not democracy, was the central value that the Americans fought for. The Declaration of Independence advocates each person's right to personal freedom. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights emphasize the necessity of protecting that freedom by limiting the power of majority over the minority. Very few of the founders trusted or wanted a democracy.
By contrast, nowadays, the president appeals to a populist ideal of the masses seizing wealth and power from the rich and powerful--while enforcing his own political grip on the nation. This is diametrically opposed to the intentions of the founders. We need to revitalize our appreciation of individual freedom.
Third, the founders relied heavily on their understanding of human nature, which included human psychology. Unlike today, political understanding was based on premises about human nature and human conduct. The founders believed that human nature required freedom for its full and responsible development. Today, political leaders of every stripe act as if human nature requires constant nurturing from Big Brother in order to survive. We need to recapture the ideal of the individual who takes care of his or her own life, family, and community.
Fourth, the founders had a holistic concept of psychology, economics, and politics that led to one overall view of life. Since it all begins with human nature and the ethical pursuit of happiness, the same principles apply to running our personal lives as to running our economic and political lives. That idea is completely lost today, and the government today spends and wastes money the way no individual, family or business could do. We must no longer act as if the government can break the basic rules of life.
Fifth, the founders believed in God with a faith so strong that it sustained them throughout the War of Independence and the creation of the new government. Don't be taken in by what you've been told about their lack of religious conviction. Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and James Madison each believed in a God who actually intervened in human life, and each believed that God had made possible America's victory in the War of Independence. I carefully document this in Wow, I'm an American! How to Live Like Our Heroic Founders. Of course everyone has a right to believe in God or not, but we must stop deluding ourselves about the origins of the Republic which lie deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian traditions and faith.
The founders also believed that a religious and moral citizenry was required for the republic to survive. While they did not align the government with any one particular religion, the founders freely intermixed governmental affairs with religious affairs, even holding religious services in government institutions. Washington set aside Thanksgiving Day as a day for expressing gratitude to God. By separation of church and state, the founders meant that the government could not make laws governing religion. Meanwhile, they considered God at the heart of American life and institutions. We need to stop erasing God from our national heritage.
Sixth, the founders were idealists whose actions cannot be explained by sheer economic considerations. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were, almost to a man, very successful and respected members of the community. They had very little to gain and much to lose by risking their lives and fortunes in the great cause of liberty.
None of the signers benefited economically from the War of Independence, and many lost their lives, or the lives of loved one, and many were financially ruined. They frequently declared that they were fighting not merely for themselves but for human liberty.
Again and again, the founders spoke of risking their lives and fortunes for future generations of Americans and ultimately for all humanity. They were "internationalists" in the sense that they deeply desired to spread freedom around the world--but not in the sense of compromising American values or sovereignty. Once again, this is thoroughly documented in Wow, I'm an American! We must once again be proud of America unique role in the world as the bearer of the torch of freedom.
Seventh, although the founders compromised on slavery in order to unite the states, as well as to support their own economic interests, many knew that slavery was a moral abomination and anticipated that their actions and principles would lead to its eventual demise. Some like Samuel Adams, Abigail Adams, Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin actively opposed slavery, Franklin in his later years. Most importantly, the founders advocated principles that ultimately did lead to the bloody end of slavery in America and to greater freedom throughout the world. We must stop carping about the flaws of the founders, and instead appreciate their heroism, their foresight, and the principles of liberty that they gave to us. Human progress depends upon expanding the freedoms that they fought for and so majestically articulated.
Politics has become everything the founders feared it might become. Instead of a government of checks and balances that defends individual freedom, we have a government led by a charismatic leader and his czars who trample on Constitutional checks and balances, while robbing us of our individual freedoms. Instead of beginning with basic principles of freedom and responsibility, the government gains power by catering to one or another interest group, and by punishing others, while spending the nation into a hole that literally goes all the way to China. Instead of pledging their lives to the freedom of future generations, government officials steal the wealth and the freedom of future generations. In the words of my wife, Ginger, it is time to stop sentencing our children and grandchildren to a nation that is rapidly becoming a debtors' prison.
Instead of believing in America and its founding principles, we are being told to become like every other nation, especially the European socialist nations.
When America is no longer a bastion of freedom, the light of freedom will begin to extinguish throughout the world, perhaps forever. The future of humanity depends upon a robust return to the founding principles of America.
Peter R. Breggin, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Ithaca, New York. His most recent book is Wow, I'm an American! How to Live Like Our Heroic Founders. It can be purchased on Internet bookstores like Amazon.com and B&N.com, and at a discount with a bonus interview on Dr. Breggin's website, www.breggin.com.