Character is a word that’s rarely used today; rarer still is finding leaders who demonstrate character. But there are a few. Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, against their party’s wishes, chose to participate in an investigation into the causes of the January 6, 2020 insurrection.
It takes character and courage to choose principle over politics.
Where would we be today without the character and fortitude of Lincoln, who persisted and succeeded in the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Where would the public outcry be over the scurrilous attacks by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy if not for the inspiring character of Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who fearlessly stood on the Senate floor and raised her voice against “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.
“The right way,” Smith told her Senate colleagues, “is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”
The Founders argued, shouted, and fought but ultimately reasoned through the problems of breaking away from English rule to establish a new government, “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Lincoln said. But as hard as it was, they used principled reasoning by way of a common set of values and agreed on what we now call our Declaration of Independence, the first step in defining us as Americans.
During a conversation with a friend about the division in the country, I was struck by something she said: “I’m not a Republican or a Democrat; I’m an American.”
I think we have lost sight of what it means to be an American.
We’ve become so isolated and insulated in our entrenched thinking that we have forgotten who we are and what we stand for. Many of us are so focused on anger that we only listen to what we want to hear and little else.
While some of our deepest differences are not easy to solve, one thing is certain: things can’t continue as they are.
Despite our wants and needs, we need to reason our way through problems, not through shouts and demands but principled reasoning by way of core American values, the same values our communities use: honesty, respect, responsibility, and citizenship that make our neighborhoods work because we are all mutually dependent.
Many of us remember the words that begin the declaration of our independence, but the last words are equally important:
“We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes, And Our Sacred Honor.”
For many who signed that document, their sacrifice was real.
Writing for American Heritage, Arthur Bernon Tourtellot notes that “The houses of William Ellery, Lewis Morris, and Josiah Bartlett were burned. Those of George Clymer, Lyman Hall, John Hart, William Floyd, William Hooper, Francis Hopkinson, and Arthur Middleton were destroyed or thoroughly ransacked. Altogether seventeen of the signers suffered extreme, and in some cases total, property losses. One in nine of them lost his life. But not one man of the fifty-six lost his ‘sacred honor.’”
As Americans, let’s try to resurrect some of that honor by finding common ground, reasoning our way through the hard issues we face. The Founders did, under extraordinary circumstances. The North and the South did after a war that cost more than 600,000 lives and almost brought an end to the union. Although it took decades to accomplish, we came together as a union again.
As Americans, it’s up to all of us to listen and reason together to determine what kind of country we want.
With their character and courage, Ukrainians are an example to the world in fighting and dying for their country and democratic way of life. They are, in the purest sense of the words, mutually pledging to each other their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
Despite our differences, we need to renew that honor in ourselves and support those leaders who reflect the same kind of rectitude as Margaret Chase Smith, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.