When the United States, uniquely among historical national powers, established itself on the foundation of principles, our founders purposely intended to establish us as a beacon among nations. But they also created a high standard for national behavior that has proved a burden ever since.
The original Constitution explicitly set out the authority of the three branches of government but equally explicitly established the boundaries of that power and set each of the branches to watch over the others, especially requiring the legislative branch to oversee the conduct of the executive branch. But its amendments very soon focused on the rights of citizens -- to speak, to organize, to write and print, to worship, to be equal, and most importantly to be be secure in our homes and property.
Those of us privileged to travel the world know the degree to which people around the world judge our adherence to the principles we proclaim. Many Americans think we can say one thing and do another as a nation. It is not true. We are daily held to the high standard our founders set for the United States. And, too often, we do not measure up either at home or abroad.
Most disquieting has been the tendency of our government to sacrifice our individual rights to the perceived need for security. Threats, real or imagined, are almost immediately seen as grounds for suspending the Constitutional rights of the individual. Nowhere is this more evident than the use of electronic surveillance in the age of terrorism. And the current administration seems content to perpetuate some of the worst excesses of its predecessor.
No one said that principled democracy would be easy. And of course Thomas Jefferson didn't contemplate today's technologies. But he did know human nature. And he and his colleagues knew that it would be up to us to keep political power within its Constitutional boundaries and, even more, to insist that America live up to the principles it proclaims.