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Reflections on our American values

Write to the Point


It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on, everyone talks about “American values.”

What does this phrase mean? It could mean different things to different people. It could mean something different depending on the environment it’s discussed in, the time of day, the type of people doing the talking, how much alcohol is consumed.

But there are such things as American values. Concepts many hold dear, that define how we feel about ourselves, what we believe and why we are here.

Let me take a stab at this, but not necessarily in my words. There are others who are more eloquent.

Start with this familiar one:

“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.”

Yes, there are contradictions in the Declaration of Independence. Comedian George Carlin put it perfectly when he noted this country was “founded by slave owners who wanted to be free.”

We still struggle with that. But establishing and protecting equality and the pursuit of those unalienable rights are what our founders believed are the reasons for forming governments, especially governments created by and for the governed.

They also held beliefs about what those governments should accomplish. So, here’s another American value statement, one not necessarily so well known:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Contrary to what some people say today, and say often, the function of our government is not solely to protect us and our borders. In fact, defense is fourth, after a more perfect union, justice and domestic tranquility.

The Preamble to our Constitution also lists “general welfare” as a goal of our government. Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language,” third edition 1768 and 1792 edition, same timeframe as the Constitution, defines welfare as “happiness,” and “prosperity.”

So a goal of our government is to promote general happiness and prosperity among those governed by the document. Those we elect to serve us under this document have a huge duty and responsibility to live up to these stated goals — all of them.

Finally, a lesser known American value, but one some consider our promise to the world:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus wrote this poem in 1883 as part of a campaign to raise money for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was cast on a bronze plaque and mounted in the pedestal’s lower level.

This Fourth of July marks 242 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, Sept. 17 is the 231st anniversary of the signing of our Constitution and Nov. 2 will be the 135th anniversary of the first reading of Lazarus’s poem. Either these words mean something to us, or they don’t.

This July 4, take a moment to think about these words and others like them. Ask yourself some simple questions.

“Am I happy? Prosperous? Do I have the ability to be so? Is there equality? Justice? Domestic tranquility? Do I welcome the tired, the poor, the homeless and wretched refuse of other lands hoping for a new start to live next door to me?”

Ask yourself these larger questions: “Is this what I truly believe? Are these values so profound and personal that they’re worth sacrificing to achieve and uphold?”

Or are they just words on paper.

If yes to the former, then we’ve got work to do to elect people, who also believe and act upon those values, to serve us — and our American values.

John McCallum can be reached at


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