American Culture and Values
Some would say that the United States is evil. That’s a contentious statement, but if you consider the history of our country, it is an understandable point of view. The Trail of Tears, slavery, internment camps; all of these atrocities and more are part of America’s history. Even some of the founders of the U.S. were slave holders. For people today, this may seem like another reality, just stuff that happened in the past, yet it is very real, and people suffered. But can this history ever be adequately atoned for? I say yes. History is a living, breathing animal born of our decisions in the present. In this light, the United States of America is very much a work in progress. As philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.” Although there are no excuses for the cruelties of the past, Americans work everyday to improve their lives, and the lives of everyone around them. America is progress.
The United States as a nation was created by the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Thirteen Colonies and their people desired freedom from the British Crown, as they considered King George a tyrant. In many ways he was. More than that however, Americans wanted freedom from a government overseas. They wanted a democracy, in which power would be vested in the people to make their own decisions and to self-govern.
The core ideals and values of the Declaration stem from the Age of Enlightenment, which was during the mid-1700s. Ideals of individuality, inalienable rights, and John Locke’s concept that the legitimacy of a government comes from the consent of the governed, were taken up by Enlightenment thinkers and circulated in the societies of the Old World. In America, people say that they had no representation in the British Parliament. Why should a king halfway around the world be able to decide their fates? Ultimately, it was those ideas that inspired people to arms. Thus, the American Revolution was born and the first true democratic government was formed. Who knew an idea, a value, could be so powerful?
Let’s fast forward half a century. In 1838, we have President Andrew Jackson’s order to forcibly move the Cherokee Nation from east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma, in a migration now referred to as the Trail of Tears. Other similar mistreatments of Native Americans are prevalent during this time. Natives are forced from their homes and relocated, their land taken without compensation. Nowadays this is seen as, and accepted to be, a terrible act. We now vier this as an atrocity and a violation of our constitution.
But in 1791, the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights guaranteed that you could not be forced to move. A forcible move would amount to an arrest, and that can not happen without probable cause to a crime, definitely not just because of the color of your skin. This is a core value of our Constitution, seemingly forgotten at that time, but held sacrosanct now.
Consider the year 1860, 13 percent of Americans are slaves. They live in desolate conditions, to say the least. Much of the country was okay with this, but it wasn’t OK. Slavery is an egregious moral violation. Slavery is evil. The Americans who knew this, and valued humanity, and in essence, principles of the Declaration and Constitution, were willing to fight the deadliest war in our history to prove it. The values of freedom in the Declaration saw the next logical extension: freedom for all, no matter the race. Although many of the Founding Fathers of the United States held slaves, they laid the foundation for an evolving society, and the original thoughts expressed in the Declaration needed simply to be extended. Again, we see the power of a value.
The Emancipation Proclamation and later the Thirteenth Amendment ban forced labor in America. Though no longer slaves, African Americans still faced discrimination after the Civil War, but the march of progress continued. The Fifthteenth Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote. After the Civil Rights movement, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans and other minorities gained more rights. Desegregation was enacted, and discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was banned. Today, all citizens are treated equally under the law, another values which people fought and died for, the most famous person being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of course. In fact, “the law is blind” is a direct reference to the ideal of equality, and now considered to be a basic principle of our legal system. You might even wonder if, as the generations get farther away from the original civil rights leaders, and even the founding of our country and constitution, that we might forget the human sacrifices made to get us those rights. As life becomes so comfortable, we might take a lot for granted.
During World War II (1942-1946), people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in internment camps. Most of those incarcerated were American citizens. While this occurred before the Civil Rights Act, it was still well after the Bill of Rights recognized a person’s right (not even talking about an American’s right) to be safe and secure in their home. This was a terrible atrocity for the people and their families. Japanese Americans were forced to sell off their property at very low prices. They were forced to move to what was basically a prison camp, where they faced wretched conditions. Although this was a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which protects a person from being incarcerated for a crime unless properly indicted (given due process), there was an exception for being in a “time of war” and them being a “public danger”, which is what the Japanese were considered. After all was said and done, the U.S. government formally apologized to the internees and paid them reparations. Again, one could argue that no amount of money could truly make up for the tragedies. I hope America has learned its lesson.
When looking back on the atrocities in our country's past, you would conclude that Americans aren't perfect. But Americans are humans, and no human is perfect. We cherish our values and ideals, and even fight to the death for them. America was founded on the hope for a better way of life, and the hope for a society built on the principles of justice and equality.
Above all, Americans value humanity. That’s the whole reason this country was founded. People left the monarchies of the Old World on a value, an ideal, a set of principles, to improve their lives and to make progress for their families, friends, communities, and by extension, humanity. People today still immigrate to the U.S. from all over the world; it is the most sought after place to live. The core values of our Constitution are what our country was founded one, and they will continue to keep our country moving forward, as long as we honor the sacrifices that were made, and remember our history, good and bad.
"Article 4." Bill of Rights. 1791.
Jefferson, Thomas, et al. Declaration of Independence. Second Continental Congress, 1776.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals IV.A.164. 1843.
"The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 13.
"The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 15.
United States. Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, 1968, and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Washington :U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1969. Print.
United States. President (1861-1865 : Lincoln). The Emancipation Proclamation.