It is election time again, and it has caused me to think about our country and the people who are its citizenry today. In some sense, I believe that we, the citizenry, fall into two important and large categories of people. There are those who were born into US citizenship, and who, for the most part, have never really known any form of government other than our own. Then there are those who were born into foreign citizenship, have lived under other forms of government and who, for whatever personal reasons, have come to this country and have chosen to become US citizens.
The two broad categories of people, which I have roughly defined, comprise our citizenry and, if they have achieved voting age, they comprise our electorate. I choose to focus on this separation of our citizenry into these two broad categories for a reason. The reason has to do with choice, and with understanding of what it means to be an American citizen. In my own experience, and perhaps in the experience of many of us, we know people who belong to each of these two categories.
Painting with a very large brush, there are many people in both categories who may not really understand what this country’s form of government is and what makes it unique in this world. On the other hand, there are also many who may not understand what this country’s form of government is not. Many in the second category, however, (those who have earned American citizenship and have denounced a previous foreign citizenship) usually do have a pretty good idea of what this country’s form of government is not. At least they know that it is not what they left behind, and in many cases, this has been their motivation to come to the United States and to seek and to attain the status of American citizenship.
We have all heard the familiar expression “I didn’t know what I had until I lost it”. Surely these words must be counted amongst “all the sad words of tongue and pen” (… the saddest are these, “it might have been”), to paraphrase the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. The familiar expression in the first sentence hints that “if I had only known what I had, I surely would not have given it up”. And implies even further, that not knowing what I had, I did give it up. To me, and to perhaps most of us, these would surely count among the “saddest words of tongue and pen”. They remind us of the primeval truth that we most easily lose that which we do not understand and by not understanding, do not know what we have.
To begin, I know that many people do not understand the form of government which the United States actually has. The United States is, in fact, a Republic, and even more accurately, a Constitutional Republic. To quote from the Constitution, itself (Article IV, Section 4), “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government….”. If we look around the world, we find Monarchies, Oligarchies, Theocracies, Dictatorships, etc, but we are a Republic. If you’ve never thought about it, it is reasonable to ask, “what is a Republic”, or. “what is a Republican form of government?”.
To quote from one edition of Webster’s dictionary, a Republic is “a state in which the sovereign power resides in a certain body of the people (the electorate), and is exercised by representatives elected by, and responsible to them”. This simple definition encapsulates the primary characteristics of a Republican government, namely that the electorate, whomever that may comprise, holds the sovereign power (the power of the state) and elects representatives to exercise those powers while being fully responsible to those who elected them.
In addition to being a Republic, the United States is a Constitutional Republic with a well defined division of powers granted by the people to their elected representatives. At the Federal (highest) level, The President resides over the Administrative arm of government, the two Houses of Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) comprise the Legislative arm of government, and the Supreme Court comprises the Judicial arm of government. These three arms operate independently and together, in a system of checks and balances, in which none of these arms wields absolute power. Power is vested in the people and those powers are granted by the electorate to the Federal Government in a very specific way, spelled out by the Constitution. Any power not specifically granted by the Constitution to the Federal Government and not prohibited by it to the States is specifically reserved to the States or to the people. This latter statement is in essence, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, and is embodied in our “Bill of Rights”. It is critical to understand that, in a Republic, people do not derive their rights from the government, instead the government derives its rights from the electorate and is fully accountable to that electorate..
In short, in the United States, the sovereign power of the Republic resides in and belongs to the people, and is simply granted by the electorate in a very limited way to a government who must exercise that delegated power in strict accordance with the mandates of the Constitution. The power of the Federal Government is purposely extremely limited (we should look at this in more detail in another post), and all powers, not specifically assigned to it by the Constitution, belong to the States or to the people. It is very important that all informed citizens have a basic understanding of these principles. You collectively hold the sovereign power of the United States and you are independently entitled to all the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) and the additional amendments which have been duly made a part of that document since its original drafting and approval. You do not look to the government or your representatives in government to grant or to deny those rights to you.
It is critical to understand in all of this that you, the citizens, are not the subjects of the government. Rather, it is the other way around, the representatives who you elect to serve you in government and to exercise and to uphold the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution, are your servants. As your servants, they take a sacred oath to uphold the Constitution of this great country. You pay them and they answer to you, and they must do what they have pledged to do. You have the right to remove them in the electoral process, without recourse, if you so choose. You hold the power, and they do not.
At this point, there should be a basic understanding of “what you have”. Understanding that, you should also understand what it is that you could lose, namely your rights and freedoms and your sovereign power as a state. You have delegated to your elected representatives very limited rights to exercise powers which belong to you and are guaranteed to you by the Constitution. When those to whom you have delegated those powers abuse them or ignore them, or refuse to exercise those powers in the way in which they must be exercised, based on the Constitution, you not only have the right, but indeed you have the obligation to remove them before they take away what rightfully belongs to you. Hopefully you will never have to say “I didn’t know what I had until I lost it”.
Why do I bring this up, and why am I writing about what we all should already know? It is because I personally know people who have come to the United States, denounced their former citizenship, and have become citizens of this country by choice. I have also personally heard the testimony of many of the same kind of people whom I do not know. They all appear to be asking the same basic question, which prompted me to put into words my response to what they are asking.
Specifically what they are asking and saying in large numbers, and which I think cannot be missed by anyone who is listening, is the following (my own paraphrase of their words) “we have lived under other forms of government, and we came to America to escape and to find a better life for ourselves and for our progeny. Do Americans not understand what they have and what they stand to lose?” These citizens-by-choice speak sincerely and they speak in awe and fear of the apparent lack of understanding of many American citizens who simply don’t seem to fully comprehend “what they have, and what they have to lose”. Those who do understand live in fear that the dream, which they came to the United States to embrace, could easily be lost if all who benefit from it don’t understand it well enough to do what must be done in order to protect and preserve it.
The Constitution is a short document easily found and read by search on the Internet. It is the basis for our rights as citizens, and our laws. It is worth noting what the Preamble to the Constitution says: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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”. These are the words, and they are the expression of the hopes and dreams of people around the world who have chosen to come here and to pledge their allegiance to this country and to these principles in hopes of securing this dream for themselves and for their progeny.
It is election time again in this country. Understand what you have, and that by your vote you can choose to retain those who honor the mandates of your Constitution, and to remove those who do not. This is how you exercise the power which is yours. When you vote, delegate your power wisely, and only to those who will honor, and who will not violate their pledge to uphold your Constitution. Hold all of your elected representatives in government fully accountable for their actions. Failure to do so may lead to consequences from which your rights and liberties cannot be recovered.
If you are a part of the electorate of this great country, understand your rights and be informed. Further, be aware of what you have and what you risk as you vote in this election. Those who have denounced other forms of government, and have chosen to pledge allegiance to this one, understand why they did it and the dream they hoped to attain by doing it. Each of us owes it to him/herself and to our country to do no less, and to hold those whom we elect fully accountable for their actions when they ask for and receive our votes. When you vote, delegate your power wisely and carefully, guided by your understanding of the great and unique legacy of rights and freedoms which are yours. Act wisely and do not risk losing what is your legacy and should remain the legacy of all who will follow you – your children, their children, and so on to eternity.
I am not a lawyer or a statesman. I am a citizen just like you. I do not speak with authority, but hopefully I speak with a modicum of understanding of the most basic tenets or our government, our Constitution, and our rights and responsibilities as citizens of this great country. Many are those who would take away from you what is yours to keep, to enjoy, to benefit from, and to pass on to your children and to future generations. Treat what is yours with care and do your best to understand, as I have done, what it is that we have and what it is that we might lose if we are not constantly on guard and taking action, as is our right, to preserve and to defend our great legacy.
Your vote is your exercise of the power which belongs to you – use it wisely and let no one take that power from you.