The Founding Fathers, Barack Obama, and “Taking Care of Our Own”

The Founding Fathers, Barack Obama, and “Taking Care of Our Own” September 19, 2012

Here’s a piece that I wrote after Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC.  It originally appeared at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I thought Anxious Bench readers might be interested in it as well.   For those who have already seen it, I apologize for the cross-post. —

The Founding Fathers would have been proud of Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night in Charlotte.  Ever since the Chicago-based community organizer broke onto the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with his famous “Red State, Blue State” address, he has been preaching a message of civic responsibility that reflects the political vision of the American founding.

As Obama accepted his party’s nomination for the President of the United States, and reminded the American people of the accomplishments of his first term, he did not let us forget about the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Obama was right when he said that “citizenship” is a “word at the heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy.”

The Founding Fathers knew from their study of history that a republic is only successful when its members are willing to take care of one another.  This requires individuals to temporarily lay aside their rights and interests in order to serve their neighbor, their community, and the common good.  Sometimes the Founders’ language of citizenship can sound foreign, if not dangerous, to a twenty-first century culture that is drunk with liberty.  For example, the Boston patriot Samuel Adams said that a citizen “owes everything to the Commonwealth.”  In 1776, an unnamed Pennsylvania revolutionary proclaimed that “no man is a true republican…that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.”

If Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, were alive today he would probably be labeled a socialist.  Here is what Rush had to say about the purpose of education in a republic:  “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”  Americans could “amass wealth,” Rush argued, as long as it was used to “increase his power of contributing to the wants and demands of the state.” Rush wanted to “convert men into republican machines.” His vision for a thriving republic would be rejected in twenty-first century America, but it should remind us that citizenship requires obligation and sacrifice to the larger society.

Barack Obama’s speech, drawing upon this older American tradition of civic humanism, was a stark contrast to the vision of America that the Republican Party put forth at their convention in Tampa. The GOP used its convention to tell a story of ambition, rights, and personal freedoms.  All of these things are good and deeply American, but Obama, echoing the Founders, made it clear that a healthy society cannot be sustained on these ideas alone.

The Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Andrew Carnegie vision of the American dream that we heard during the GOP convention fails to recognize that we are not autonomous individuals.  Citizenship requires a long view–an understanding that we have been shaped by the circumstances of the past, we have obligations to each other in the present, and, to quote Obama, we are responsible to “future generations.”

Of course the GOP rhetoric of individualism will appeal to people who do not like government intervention or the idea that they must sacrifice their own pursuits of happiness to the common good. But such a view of America would look foreign to our Founding Fathers.

As Obama finished his speech on Thursday night, Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” began to blare through the sound system of Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.  The song is a republican anthem.  It provided a perfect exclamation point to Obama’s speech.  I am not sure what the Founding Fathers would have thought about Springsteen’s music, but they could certainly relate to the stirring chorus: “We take care of our own/We take care of our own/Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own.”

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  • Steve Billingsley

    How exactly does $16T in debt equal responsibility to future generations? Just wondering.

  • Bob Wiley

    Now I am beginning to wonder about Dr. Fea’s preferred flavor of Kool Aid.

  • Randy Hill

    You have taken everyone of your quotes out of context. The founding fathers would never take wealth from an unwilling participate to give it to another. Yes, that believed that religious society would take care of the poor, however it would be the community or local governments responsibility not the federal governments. They never believe in such retoric as you have stated.

  • John Fea

    Randy: It’s hard to get the full context out there in a short blog post, but I would encourage you to read Rush’s “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.” I am not saying that Rush was a socialist–that would be horribly anachronistic and ahistorical. What I am suggesting if that Rush published this essay today he might be accused of being a socialist by tea party or libertarian types.

  • John Fea

    Bob: My preferred flavor of Kool Aid is American history.

  • Galen Wilson

    Beautifully written article and thanks for underscoring that we’re all in this together. Was it not Ben Franklin who said, in a slightly different context, “If we do not all hang together, we shall all hang separately”? His words have a contemporary application as well as their original intent.

  • Bobby B.

    John you’re beginning to sound Bartonesque in your attempts to make the Founding Fathers join Bill Clinton and Joe Biden in endorsing Mr. Obama.

  • Darren

    You are a lying Communist buddy, this article is total crap

  • Darren

    Civic Humanism is based on charity and the goodwill of men, NOT government coordinated or mandated “humanism” that equates to wealth distribution and lowers EVERYONE’S quality of life!