Julie and Joe cover most of my reaction to Obama’s speech, but I’ll add two things.
One small point. Didn’t anyone fact-check the speech before it was released? In the first paragraph, Obama says this of the Constitutional Convention: "Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787." That’s when the convention began. It ended in September, 1787. Admittedly, a small point. But perhaps it suggests something about Obama. Like most Progressives, he’s better at understanding what he takes to be the goal of the constitution than its content.
More importantly, Obama seems to be trying to take the understanding of citizenship that is implicit in the constitution (at least as I read it), and combine it with the social gospel. In short, he wants the universality that is only possible in a limited government that covers an expansive territory, and the type of community and governmental responsibility that can only be had in a small republic.
Obama here takes an old line, one which is hard to reconcile with the very constitution that Obmama is claiming to support. That being the case, perhaps we should recall the wisdom of our friend Mr. Madison in Federalist 10:
"As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property"
Or, in the words of my namesake, John Adams: “Divided we ever have been, and ever must be.”
I fear that the kind of unity that Obama seeks is not the unity of citizens supporting liberty, but that of tyrants managing our lives for us. I hope that I am mistaken because I fear that many Americans no longer know the difference.