At the root of harsh political commentary these days s is the failure to acknowledge that many of the values we aspire to as Americans compete against each other. “Values” are those items we all seek to distribute according to what is considered virtuous: resources, recognition, priority, safety, achievement, strength, profit, freedom, etc.. This competition extends far beyond the traditional “freedom versus security” dichotomy to reconciling basic human rights versus wants, public versus private goods, civility versus change, the list goes on. Usually when politicians are shouting populist slogans, demonizing their opponents, and waving historical flags, they are highlighting one value and ignoring another equally desirable but competing value.
Competing values have been a reality of American political life since a wide variety of groups first settled in the “new world.” Often the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock are held up as the first Americans, and we are heirs primarily of their values. Puritans were Calvinist Separatists ejected from England for rigid religious and political views. The little colony of Plymouth only numbered 7,000 inhabitants, however, and soon merged with the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony. While the MBC was also influential, with Governor Wintrop declaring “We shall be as a city upon a hill” primarily for strong self-government.
Many other groups settled in the New World as business ventures. Virginia was settled at about the same time as a business venture to supply tobacco; indentured servants worked in brutal conditions to support a few plantation owners. The Carolinas were settled primarily as a business venture by England to provide foodstuffs to the sugar plantations of the English West Indies; slavery was established from the beginning and there was no self-government to speak of. The Dutch settled Manhattan as a company town, the company being the Dutch East India Company; the settlement was run by harsh business directors for profit, without regard for freedom of religion, speech or democracy of the settlers.
Other colonies were established in support of other principles. William Penn settled Pennsylvania for religious freedom of Quakers and allowed others to settle there; the Pilgrims governed via religion, not freedom. Maryland was established as a Catholic haven. Georgia was established more or less as a penal colony to establish a buffer with Spanish Florida and French Louisiana; high-minded prison reformers like James Oglethorpe sought humane sentences and conditions after his friend died in debtors’ prison. Rhode Island was formed by Roger Williams in reaction to repressive Massachusetts regulations, providing for individual rights rarely heard of before. Delaware was founded by Swedes, and Scots Irish sought land to farm in the inland Appalachian valleys they could not wrest from landowners back home.
We can trace the values of each of these disparate groups to our political culture today. Over time, primarily in opposition to harsh British policies, a distinct American political value system was established.
Beyond establishing nation-states, a key step to success in any venture is recognizing and understanding the values that drive the members. We must be aware of the principles that drive us. We must prioritize those values and pay particular attention to those that form “red lines” we cannot cross. We must find solutions that service each of these values appropriately, and educate all team members to execute tasks in a consistent manner. Values both compete with each other and drive us forward.