America’s great expectations

Daniel Gardner

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Years ago I asked my students to take out a piece of paper and make a list of everything that the government was supposed to provide for us. I asked them not to write their names on the paper, but just make a list. This exercise is not original with me. A professor at a university in Florida did this years ago, and I was curious to learn what my students thought. I was also trying to help them find a good persuasive speech topic.

Most of the lists included items like national defense, infrastructure, and law and order. The top item on one list was “more money.” Other lists included free college education, a good job, and a good house in a nice neighborhood. Remember, the lists were supposed to be what the government owed us.

When our founders declared our independence from Great Britain, they laid out their views of governments and rights of the people. “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….” More than one of our founders struggled with the issue of slavery while writing the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution, but the delegations and congresses were too divided to resolve one of the most divisive issues of that day.

Nevertheless, the founders wholly agreed that “certain unalienable Rights” are given by the “Creator” of men. Presumably, the founders had this in mind when they wrote and approved the Bill of Rights. Having won the war of independence from a tyrannical government, the founders wanted to spell out clearly the people’s rights that could not be taken away by an oppressive government.

The First Amendment forbade the government from establishing a religion or from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Other rights in the amendment included freedom of speech and the press, the right to assemble peaceably, and the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances.”

Likewise, the Second Amendment recognized the people’s right “to keep and bear arms” as a necessary means of securing “a free state.” Needless to say, Freedom of the people from the government was a keystone of both documents, especially as enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Debates over “rights” in America have certainly degenerated from the lofty ideals our founders wrestled with. Though they never debated who could marry whom or how to define a woman, recent Supreme Court decisions and legislation have pitted genders against genders in an ever-expanding list of genders.

In 1973 the Supreme Court discovered abortion in the Constitution and made it a right of every woman … way back when only women could get pregnant. In 2022 the Supreme Court said abortion is not in the Constitution, and that individual states should make their own laws about abortion, the same thought espoused by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Sadly, a large percentage of Americans today, perhaps even a majority think in terms of what the government owes them in terms of financial benefits or in terms of rights. Are schools teaching students the government owes us free stuff? What is the end of America’s great expectations?

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