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We the People: Our Future Must Come From Our Past

by on June 29, 2017 5:00 AM

With the Fourth of July coming next week it is that time of year when people across the country, and around the globe, recall the revolutionary words our nation spoke to the world in its infancy.

“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.”

As much as we were forged by armed revolution, the poetry of our founding documents is our enduring bedrock foundation. We aspire to be a nation whose words inspire, a nation whose words matter, a nation that speaks what we mean and does what we say.

This time of year politicians talk about those documents. Often it rings hollow because of their actions. In spite of that lip service, those documents tell us the story of where WE came from. They are the lens through which WE can see where we are and where WE should be headed.


In the Declaration of Independence, the plural pronouns “we” and “us” appear more than 20 times. Every time Jefferson references the new nation it is with plural, inclusive pronouns. In contrast, when discussing the British government, embodied by King George, the singular pronoun “he” is used.

The battle lines in our revolution were drawn by Jefferson’s pronoun choice —“We” versus “He.” After the war and after the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced, our Constitution’s preamble began with a familiar plural pronoun.

“WE the people”

That Constitution bound the states and the people to each other and the Bill of Rights advanced the rule of law.

Yet decades later political infighting and factionalism ruptured into open warfare in the Civil War. It was Abraham Lincoln who reminded us once again that this is a nation founded on the ideas of We and Us.

In the Gettysburg Address, the words “we,” “us’ and “our” were spoken by Lincoln 16 times in his 278-word remarks. He used the word “they” twice but not to define or isolate an enemy entity. Rather it was to reference the soldiers and their sacrifice as distinct from the price paid by the rest of society not directly fighting the war.

But our pluralism die was cast years earlier when Washington voluntarily relinquished the power of the presidency. At the time, an individual eschewing power ensured the uniquely American ideal of power being vested in “We the people.”

The future shape of our new government was still being formed, so Washington’s choice of the “We” of our Declaration of Independence over the “He” of monarchy or dictatorship set the course. We came to value our government and to distrust power in the hands of one man.

Many of our biggest foreign adversaries have been led by single villains: Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Kruschev, Brezhnev, Kim Jong Un.

In identifying our enemies with monolithic individuals, we by extension defined ourselves as inclusive, as having virtue in our pluralism.

Now in the 21st century we find ourselves reveling in a cult of personality, resulting in a political house divided.

From the White House on down, our political dialogue is dominated by constructs around “I” and “me”. When we speak in the plural, our “we” and “them” pronouns are designed to drive wedges between segments of our own population and declaring “winners” and “losers” in every issue.

We find the monolithic villain in a president from the opposite party, or if our party is in the White House, in the leader of the opposition. Today, Democrats point to Trump while the GOP points to Nancy Pelosi. We assign them as holders of values and motives that subvert our ideals. If only our side had our way our leader would bring us all together.

If only it were that simple. For as we celebrate our nation’s birthday, holding up the words that set the Union in motion, it is easy to forget how many fights were waged, how many compromises were made to even agree on the language that forged their future and our present.

In compromise, rather than in demands to heel to a monolithic leader, the founders protected our differences, to draw strength from the individual talents of our people, to represent the ideal of union.

All these years later, in a nation where heated partisan rhetoric fertilizes the weed-like growth of division, our challenge is to find leadership with extended hands of hope rather than the clenched fists beating one’s chest claiming victory for one’s side.

If “WE the people” can find the resolve to understand that we all belong, that we all have something to add, that we harbor similar hopes and dreams for our children, we may yet ensure the founders’ lasting legacy. Only “WE the people” can be the nation where patriotism and love of country isn’t just a bumper sticker, or waving a flag, but rather a belief in the We and US concepts that are the founding pronouns of this nation.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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