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TFAS Public Policy Fellows Explore American National Character

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Fellows pause on the steps in front of the rotunda of Thomas Jefferson’s home.

What does it really mean to be an American citizen? Following a year of political and social upheaval, societal tensions and economic uncertainties, the TFAS Public Policy Fellows met to discuss which values unite American citizens as one people.

As part of their year-long examination of “The Experiment in Self Government,” the Fellows convened in Charlottesville, Virginia, for an academic retreat on “American National Character.” Fellows discussed seminal texts, decrees, speeches and letters from America’s Founding and explored what can be done to renew a unified and spirited commitment to freedom and self-reliance today.

Dr. Carson Holloway, political science professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Dr. David Azerrad, assistant professor and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C., moderated discussions and facilitated debates during the weekend retreat.

Experts in the American Founding, the pair provided a detailed analysis of the character of American citizenship and the threats and challenges to citizenship and unity Americans are facing today.

Dr. Azerrad served as a discussion leader for the weekend conference.

Dr. Azerrad opened the weekend with a timely lecture on some of the modern challenges to the Founders’ vision of citizenship, particularly the tenants of identity politics. He explained how these viewpoints subvert natural law in favor of a Marxist “oppressor vs. oppressed” ideology that is adversarial to the principles of the American Founding.

Azerrad’s words had a significant impact on current Public Policy Fellow and associate director of curricular improvement for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) Nathaniel Urban, PPF ’20. Urban shared that the lecture was a “crucial” reminder of the Founders’ ideas and the threats he and his peers working in the policy world face as they navigate today’s political climate.

“He reminded us that at the time of the American Founding, the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ in terms of skin color do not appear in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution,” Urban said. “That is because these documents do not appeal to a specific race, but to all humanity under the influence of natural law.”

He continued, “The charge of the American experiment that still exists today is that we recognize that all members of our great nation, regardless of race, religion, status, or wealth, are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’….

Dr. Holloway and Megan Rohn, PPF ’20, during a discussion session at the retreat.

Dr. Holloway opened day two of the retreat with a lecture on “Citizenship, Unity and the American Regime,” which explored American citizenship and the values and truths Americans hold in high regard. He explained the Founders’ understanding of citizenship and that Americans must be united by common principles. Holloway discussed that even though federalism allows for differences between state laws, American citizens must always have unity around the truths and principles found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Fellow Jacob Lane, PPF ’20, director of external relations and special assistant to the president for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), noted that unity, civil discourse and civic friendship are imperative for the future of America.

“Civil discourse has been a vital part of the American experiment,” he said. “Although Founders like Jefferson and Hamilton had drastically different visions as to how America should look and function as a nation, both were able to debate their ideas through published dialogue, putting their notions and concepts in front of the American people, who would ultimately serve as judge and jury as to which policy recommendations would be adopted.”

Nathaniel Urban, PPF ’20, meets a Thomas Jefferson reenactor at Monticello.

Between seminars, lectures and shared meals, the Fellows also toured the home and grounds of Monticello, the estate of America’s third president. Urban was thrilled to experience this unique piece of history firsthand for the first time.

“One of the great things about visiting Monticello was standing in the places Jefferson stood,” he said. “I pictured Jefferson writing letters and surveying the land, for example. The contents of his letters would include reflections on the American Founding and the land west of Monticello that would be the home of the University of Virginia. We are so fortunate to experience a glimpse into the lives of our Founding Fathers!”

The texts the Fellows studied in preparation for the retreat provided another glimpse into the lives of the Founders. Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address was among the readings assigned.

Fellows Colleen Harmon, PPF ’20, and José Sáenz Crespo, PPF ’20, engage in lively discussion at the retreat.

Fellow Colleen Harmon, PPF ’20, the intern program manager for The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, said this powerful speech captured the spirit of the retreat and that she was struck by Jefferson’s quote: “Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which Liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things.”

“In this time of political division, I think Jefferson’s message of civic friendship, that is, finding common affection for one another based on the shared love of country and love of the essential principles of the Declaration of Independence, most resonated with me,” she said.

Urban echoed this sentiment and said the weekend retreat provided him and the other Fellows with a rigorous understanding of the importance of history, human nature and political ideology.

“If the American experiment fails, we will not see the likes of something similar for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years,” he said. “Dr. Azerrad and Dr. Holloway reminded us that America is worth fighting for and preserving because of this.”

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