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Celebrating Democracy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." These words from the Declaration of Independence helped launch the great American experiment in democracy that we celebrate this July 4th. And while most Americans do so by grilling hot dogs with friends and family and attending fireworks displays in their hometowns (or watching them broadcast live from the National Mall), maybe we ought to spend a little time actually thinking about those words and what they mean.

John Agresto is one man who has thought long and deeply about our founding, and he has a new book out that every American who cares about our democracy should read: "Rediscovering America: Liberty, Equality, and the Crisis of Democracy" (Asahina and Wallace 2015).

Agresto aims big. He says in the preface to his book that it "will try to explain the core meaning of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and of the Constitution of 1787. It is a book that rises to defend the intelligence and patriotism of the Founders who wrote those documents and the ideas and the wisdom those documents contain. It is a book centered on a hope: the hope that a renewal in understanding  the principles of the founding will lead to a restoration of those principles in our public life, and the hope that such a restoration will mitigate the crisis we are in."

Agresto has spent a lifetime on the project of restoring an appreciation for our founding principles. As a college professor and administrator (he was president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.) and as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan years, Agresto says he watched for years as our schools and colleges abandoned the mission of teaching the Constitution or explaining our beliefs. "On one level," he says, "this is a book written by an old professor for his students, past and future." But it is much more than that.

Agresto spent several years in Iraq after the U.S. invasion as senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. That experience informs his understanding of how truly difficult it is to create and sustain democracy as our Founders conceived it -- a project that seems to have failed utterly in Iraq despite so much loss of American blood and treasure trying to transform that nation in our image. Anyone who has read Agresto's previous book, "Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions" (Encounter Books 2007), will not be surprised at what has happened in Iraq and throughout the Middle East over the past few years.


Democracy -- or the right of individuals to elect their leaders -- is not an end in itself. It would have been unthinkable to most Americans until just a few years ago, Agresto says, "that the rise of democracy itself would be, in many places around the globe, the harbinger of new and often greater repression." As he notes, the Arab Spring did not usher in liberty, but Islamic fundamentalism in many places. And the Middle East is not the only place where elections have resulted in less freedom. "Putin may rule both corruptly and with ferocious force, but he does it under the cover and through the mechanism of open elections," Agresto notes.

"Rediscovering America" walks readers through the underlying principles necessary for democracy to survive and thrive. With chapters devoted to the proposition that "All Men Are Created Equal," economics and justice, and the role liberty and equality play in the character of American life, among others, Agresto argues that unless we fully appreciate the foundations of our liberty, we risk losing it.

The book also contains a wonderful compendium of foundational documents, including the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other Amendments, three of the most important Federalist Papers, Nos. 1, 10 and 51, and Abraham Lincoln's speech of July 1858 defending the principle that all men are created equal. It is a book that asks the right questions and points us to the right answers so that, in Lincoln's words, "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."


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