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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table


What does it mean to be an American?


Tell me: What does it actually mean to be an American? In the press of day-to-day events and amid the ongoing tumult of politics, we don’t think about this much. Yet it’s a crucial question, one that each generation in this country is called upon to answer for itself.

Despite our differences, there are some traits that I think we and our predecessors would recognize — characteristics to being an American that resonate with most of us, regardless of our age or our political beliefs. For instance, I believe the aim of our representative democracy is to enhance the liberty of free people, and to offer them the opportunity to make the most of their talents. This lies at the root of what it means to live in a representative democracy: extending respect to all and wanting every person to be aware of his or her political importance.

Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this view is the awe-inspiring Declaration of Independence, which remains a core inspiration both for our political values and our shared identity. The notion that all people are created equal, that we possess God-given inalienable rights, including to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — these are beliefs that undergird our democracy.

They suggest that our country can — and should — be an example to the world of what a government of liberty can mean in the lives of citizens. And that we should never stop trying to make the world a better place. Bringing these values into our policies and our politics depends on all of us — another notion embedded in this country since the beginning.

Often people ask, “Where are the Jeffersons or Lincolns in this time of need?” They understand that the quality of our elected leaders makes all the difference, and that bold, decisive, thoughtful leadership is essential for our country’s success. Yet while I recognize the need, ultimately our success as a nation will rest on the strength and capabilities of our citizens. The Founding Fathers spoke often of the need for citizens of virtue and talent, for people capable of governing themselves.

We do so through our political institutions, within a framework set out in our Constitution. While our system is not perfect, it has provided us with the tools to meet our challenges — and in a better fashion than any likely alternative.

Politics as it is practiced in our country can bring despair and crushing defeat. But it can also produce splendid achievements. If you enter politics, you have to be prepared for both. I know that a lot of people view politics with disdain and disapproval, yet over the course of a long political life, I never felt the desire to escape it. Just the opposite, in fact. I knew a lot was at stake in the battles, and I embraced them.

To be sure, I pursued them at a time when it was possible to find common ground across partisan divides, and when respecting one’s opponents did not bring immediate censure from donors and primary voters. The atmosphere is different now. Yet the basic need — for using the political system to resolve fundamental challenges — has not changed.

Nor has one of its most basic features: a permanent tension between the preservation and expansion of individual freedom on the one hand, and the stability and strength of the nation on the other.

Government must have enough power to protect the national interest and to be capable of addressing deep-seated problems. It must secure and enlarge personal liberties while maintaining order and stability. It must provide the national security necessary for the preservation of freedom.

These are not contradictory goals, but they do rub against each other. How we interpret them — how far in one direction or the other we go as our national circumstances change — is a constant challenge. Being an American means not shying away from that task, but instead embracing it as part of our birthright.

About the Center on Representative Government

The Center on Representative Government is a non-partisan, educational institution that has developed an extensive array of free civics education resources and activities to improve the public’s understanding of the role of representative government, to strengthen civic engagement, and to teach the skills that are essential to sustaining our form of representative democracy.

The Center was established in January of 1999. The idea for the Center grew from former Congressman Lee Hamilton's recognition during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives of the need to improve the public’s understanding of Congress – its role in our large and remarkably diverse country, its strengths and its weaknesses, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

At the core of the Center’s work is the belief that our nation’s great experiment of representative democracy has served us well for more than 200 years, but it fundamentally rests on an informed electorate that understands our system of government and participates in our civic life.

Our vision is to have an informed and engaged citizenry that will preserve our democratic principles and resolve our conflicts with civility, deliberations, and consensus building.

Our mission is to help prepare the next generation of citizens by working with educators to create programs that inform, inspire, and motivate students and to encourage civic participation to seek solutions to the many challenges that confront our nation today.

Lee Hamilton is one of the nation’s foremost experts on Congress and representative democracy. Hamilton founded the Center on Congress at Indiana University in 1999 and served as its Director until 2015. Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he represented Indiana from 1965-1999. He also served as President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., from 1999-2010. He is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015).

Hamilton currently serves as Senior Advisor for the Center on Representative Government, Distinguished Scholar in the School of Global and International Studies, and as a Professor of Practice in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Representative Government Senior Advisor

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