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The American Project is Deteriorating

What has happened to the founding virtues of the United States over the last half century? The news is fairly grim. 

In Coming Apart I talk a lot about The American Project and what I had in mind by that is the idea that human beings could be left alone to live their lives as they see fit with actually very few rules that they had to follow except criminal law.  In trying to talk systematically about why The American Project is deteriorating, I tried to figure out what are the measures that are really important.  And I went back to the founders because the founders were very explicit that the Constitution wouldn’t work unless there were certain qualities already in the people.  And they’ve listed a lot of different thing but there were four that all of the major founders – Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton – they all agreed on.  

One of those is what they called industry – we would say industriousness.  But it’s not just working hard, it’s the whole notion that is so important in America of going out there, working to make a better life, working long hours if necessary, having a better life for your children, rising in the world which was evident long before the Constitution.  Second one was the family.  Now they took for granted the people were married.  What was unique about marriage in their eyes compared to Europe was the morality of marriage, the degree to which it was based on a mutual agreement – not an arranged marriage.  And also the degree to which people were faithful to the vows of marriage.  

There was also honesty.  Plain American honesty because the founders – the founders knew that you don’t have a free society unless people don’t have to be forced to obey the laws.  That they are honest by nature and that they will overwhelmingly do the right thing without being told.  And finally there was religiosity.  The founders themselves weren’t orthodox Christians in most cases.  They believed very strongly, however, that a free society demands, first of all, self-government – government of the self and that religion was the indispensable measure for doing that.  And so in Coming Apart I take these four founding virtues, as I refer to them, and track what’s been happening to them in the United States over the last half century and the news is fairly grim. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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