The founding impulse for America came with the Pilgrims, mooring at Plymouth 400 years ago this autumn. The Calvinist Pilgrims came in search of a place to live out their faith — an intangible mind-set that called them to work and to pray. They set moral standards for themselves and organized their personal, family and community lives to aspire to those ideals.
Their moral vision was of a community of industrious believers in the good, of proud and hardworking, self-governing individuals, accepting a vocation of service to God and community.
The men who had chosen this course for their families agreed to:
“Solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic ... to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws ... as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good ... .”
This Mayflower Compact provided for the rule of law in governing the community; it honored personal freedoms under the law; it set expectations of each person to work for both personal and the common good. It presumed good will, good faith and commitment on the part of those who joined the common effort. It also presumed some education and rationality.
This moral vision came to be the American dream.
In 1776, this aspiration was applied to ennoble political separation from the government of Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence echoed the Mayflower Compact in being a contract among those who believed in “certain truths.” The new nation of the United States of America would seek to live by ideals, not by tribal identity or by the doctrines of any one religion. The new nation would be a novus ordo seclorum — “a new order for the ages.”