I want to start out this review by engaging you in a visualization technique. I want you to close your eyes, concentrate, and think back to when you were in elementary school. Think back to the days of paper friendship chains, and cornucopias, and when you remembered which President’s birthday it was when you got a day of school off. Now, focus, and remember a thing called a “Citizenship Award?” or something with a similar name. Remember what it stood for? Perhaps helping out class mates, doing things without asking, being nice to other people, in some way being a good person, just for the sake of it.
Now open your eyes and be an adult again. When you hear the phrase, do your civic duty, what does that make you think of? I’m guessing you are thinking of voting, or jury duty, and how you dread it. THAT juxtaposition of what being a good citizen as a child and what it means as an adult are what I believe this book, at its core centers on. It is a call to true citizenship, in the full meaning of the term.
This book came into my life at an interesting time. I was recently asked to be a part of the HomeSchool Association of California‘s legal team, and have been returning to a more rigorous study of the various homeschool methods out there. If you read my Homeschooling for Lawyers blog, you’ll remember I’m a fan of Charlotte Mason and Classical Education, although we don’t follow either or any to a T. Additionally, as a blawger, I am always interested in opportunities to engage my “legal brain” so to speak.
So, when I saw a solicitation to read over this book in a Thomas Jefferson Education discussion group, you can bet I jumped at the chance. At its core, the book The U.S. Constitution and the 196 Indispensable Principles of Freedom, by Oliver DeMille, is about freedom. What it looks like, what erodes it, and why we need it.
I personally believe that a solid understanding of Natural Law and the Enlightenment as it relates to government, is key to understanding some of the concepts that DeMille is discussing. And I personally cannot engage in a conversation about Natural Law without hearkening back to Hobbes in Leviathan, where he says:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry… no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Therefore, in nature, we begin in a state of every man for himself, in which case, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Clearly, no one wants that, or to borrow the phrase, “no man is an island.”
With that as the starting point, the question that presents itself is, what sort of government DO we want? DeMille recounts an impressive history of the Founders, and discusses in depth the sources from which they drew their inspiration in order to frame our Constitution and federal government system. (At first I was going to list them, but I think its better to not, so that you will be further incentivized to read for yourselves.)
He does this for three primary reasons: 1) in an attempt to put the reader on a level playing field in terms of common knowledge for the terms of discussion; and 2) in order to encourage the reader to delve into a study of them; and 3) to demonstrate how important these various ideas and writings are both historically and in modernity.
I’m not sure why, but as I was typing that last sentence, the story of Icarus came to mind, but alas perhaps my TJEd 7 Keys Certification brain is getting muddled with my review, so I will move on🙂
DeMille gives an extensive overview of the various texts in order to arrive at a sort of open ended answer to what it means to truly be free. For example, one concept that will certainly appear radical to the reader, is the notion that the government is only responsible, in very broad terms, of protecting people from each other, only in as much as they might kill each other, so to speak. See the Leviathan quote above to get a better sense of what I mean. He also mentions specific limited governmental responsibilities, but beyond that, it is the OTHER factions of society that are responsible to carry out various tasks.
For example, imagine this:
- Churches, families, and communities rallying together to boycott an artist.
- A community voluntarily cleaning up a polluted waterbed.
- Communities, churches, and families rising up to cloth the naked and feed the hungry, etc.
This is just a very basic overview of his discussion of these 7 separate spheres, and I highly recommend reading it for yourself to get a better understanding of this view of limited, balanced, government. There is also a very compelling discussion of the problems with a political party based system. I would venture to guess that DeMille and I might be at opposite ends of the Liberal to Conservative spectrum, demonstrating that political affiliation is irrelevant in drawing wisdom from this inspirational text, and in fact can obfuscate the heart of important matters in governing a truly free society.
Another concept that was very compelling to me, was his discussion of lawyers. It is always interesting to me to hear what other peoples’ perceptions are of the profession from the outside, and in this case, I tend to think he was dead on.
For example, most current American lawyers define the term “constitutional law” as a study of the historically important Supreme Court cases and development of the U.S. judiciary, but a more accurate meaning of the same phrase is a study of how constitutions are written.
This concept is often lost to current legal thinkers…”They speak as if they were bound.” The contemporary legal systems to which they are bound seem to leave an ever-shrinking area to individual freedom.
Not once during law school do I recall ever thinking, I cannot wait to get out of here and CHANGE the laws or how they work. Granted, MUCH Socratic discussion was given to why certain laws seemed poorly written or ineffective, but the manner of the day in each discussion was how to use the current system to argue that the law does not apply, or to use it to your client’s advantage, whether that be an individual, a business, governmental branch, etc.
There is no call to action to revitalize the legal system itself, in my opinion, in the current law school classrooms. There is also an important discussion of the problem with having too many laws, laws that are too complicated (hello tax code!), laws and sentencing rules that are applied unfairly, and laws that are not well known. You will find yourself nodding all the while.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the concept of a vicinage jury. You’ll have to read this for yourself and let me know what you think! I thought it was fascinating. I think most people will agree that there is much room for progress in our current criminal law system– or within our litigious society in general, for that matter. Ideas abound.
Relatedly, he engages in a brief discussion of political scientists, saying that they, “often appear to be inclined to think of politics as a sort of technique, comparable, say, to engineering…The engineering idea of political science has, in fact, little, if anything, in common with the cause of individual freedom.”
I cannot lie, my senior seminar paper in Political Science, In Defense of: In Defense of a Political Court, based upon the book written by one of my mentors, was VERY science-y. In fact, all majors were required to take an Applied Quantitative Methods course where we learn how to apply statistical analysis to political facts. My paper focused on the statistical significance of drug laws on drug related outcomes (emergency room visits, etc.). However, to my professor’s great credit, the purpose of the seminar, was to read, discuss, and analyze the writings of many of the foremost scholars in the field on the topic of judicial review. These included Ely, Black, Segal & Spaeth, Bork, and many many others that I am embarrassed to admit I just can’t remember nearly 10 years later. In retrospect, I also was amazingly blessed to have a very inspiring and thought provoking Political Philosophy professor, who assigned as required reading many of the sources referred to in the text.
So what is the point of this borderline narcissistic discussion of my back story as it relates to this book? It is that this book is critical, in my opinion, for awakening the slumbering beast that is an apathetic citizenry in this country.
Complacency is not new. In fact, as a senior in high school, one of our assignments was to write to a local congress person on an issue that we thought was important. I wrote about my concern that none of my contemporaries CARED. Perhaps many will recall the scene in Network, where the protagonist puts his head out the window and shouts: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
A Thomas Jefferson Education was inspiring to me because I want to give my children an education such that they are intimately familiar with great works and big ideas, AND I want them to be leaders. I want them to be informed. I want acting honestly, and with integrity to be second nature, and I want them to be able to make decisions in difficult times. I want them to make our country a better place, and they cannot do it unless they are exposed to authentic sources, the least of which include writings by our founders.
This book comes into play because it is up to us as parents and adults to lead the charge. If we are so preoccupied with the American Idol finale– gosh what a fitting title that show has– then who will be available to discuss the Declaration of Independence with our children? Who will be around to teach them why we feel Supreme Court decisions were unfair or unjust, and what to do now? Those are very singular and focused examples of what may get our family going, but the opportunities for learning and teaching about freedom abound, as this book specifically elucidates. (Some might say that is what grandparents and the older generations are for, but if our generation is not investing in learning about those things now, who will have that wisdom to share when we become grandparents?)
The book closes with DeMille’s list of 196 principles which he has drawn from the various sources he discussed. They are thought provoking and exhaustive. Further, each individual section ends with a list of study questions and recommended reading, true to DeMille-ian form.
My brain was literally bursting when I finished the book, to the point that I had to take nearly a week to digest all of the big ideas. This book will re-awaken a sense of importance and mission and purpose in you if you are willing to let it in. You may not agree with everything DeMille has to say, but that is not necessary, nor even suggested.
Finally, I would like to close with a quote that really spoke to me, and I believe perhaps best captures what DeMille was going for here:
A free people must be generally courageous. A free people must be generally resilient. A free people must exhibit the general habit of initiative. A free people must be generally virtuous. A free people must be generally and voluntarily self sacrificing for freedom.
Even as it is written, I feel as though this review doesn’t nearly touch upon all of the points I would like to cover or thoughts that it made me think, but as they say, these continual well of wisdom is the mark of a true classic. This book should be on your Holiday wishlist, you will not regret it. This is a book that you will definitely want to buy a physical copy of so that you can highlight and annotate to your heart’s content. Click here for ordering information. Please share your thoughts with me after you get a chance to read it as well. Cheers!