Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 24, 2021

Judge Atchley explains 'American exceptionalism’

U.S. District Judge Charles Atchley delivers the keynote address during the Chattanooga Bar Association’s 2021 Law Day celebration. - Photograph provided

This is an edited version of the keynote speech U.S. District Judge Charles Atchley provided during the Chattanooga Bar Association’s 2021 Law Day celebration, held Sept. 15 on Zoom and in person in the Silver Room at The Read House.

While not nearly as acknowledged or feted as other special days of celebration in the United States, Law Day is arguably one of the most important.

Many people confuse it as a day set aside to honor and celebrate attorneys. As you can imagine, this misunderstanding makes it – perhaps unfairly – not very popular with the public.

But Law Day is much more than this. It is, in the words of the statute authorizing its creation, “a special day of celebration by the people of the United States in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law.”

Reviewing this statute caused me to reflect on its wording and the importance behind its meaning, on the importance of our founding principles and beliefs, and on the importance of the Rule of Law.

American Exceptionalism

I must confess I’m a bit old fashioned. But I’m not embarrassed to tell you I still believe in American exceptionalism.

This does not mean I believe America is perfect or its history is without stain. Far from it. But it does mean I optimistically believe America eventually learns from its mistakes and rises above them to continue to form an even more perfect Union.

And I believe it’s incumbent upon all of us to help our nation rise above its mistakes and continue to educate ourselves on the history, foundation and operation of our government – both the good and the bad of it.

I believe the capacity of Americans to be able to do this is what ultimately separates us from others.

We’ve had our problems in our history, and the last 18 months have been a particularly difficult time for our nation. We’re suffering through a global pandemic, we slogged through a period of protracted domestic unrest, violence and lawlessness, and we just made a less than ideal exit from Afghanistan.

And I won’t even begin to discuss the current political divisiveness that continues to polarize us as a people.

But these struggles offer us the opportunity to once again demonstrate to the world what is special about being an American. However, it will not be easy, and we have a task in front of us.

Rule of Law

The principles of equality and justice mean everyone is equal before the law. No one is above the law, and no one is privileged to ignore it, just as no one is outside of its protection.

In his January 1838, Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln warned of two results of a growing disregard for the Rule of Law. His first warning was against the threat of mob rule.

He said, “...whenever the vicious portion of our population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity, depend upon it, this government cannot last.”

He went further to warn us against potential tyrants who crave personal attention. “Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good than harm, ... that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

Both mob rule and tyrannical rule violate the Rule of Law because both are rule by passion and emotion rather than “the better angels of our nature.”

Both threaten our constitutional order equally, and when crimes go unpunished, or when good people do nothing, the lawless in spirit will become lawless in practice. This can only lead to violence and populist demagoguery.

Civic education must have at its center an understanding of the Rule of Law so we can have what our founding fathers called “a government of laws, and not of men.”

Civic ignorance

Participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last.

Particularly concerning today are the declining levels of civic engagement across our country, a trend that started several decades ago but that I am hopeful we can turn around.

In August 2016, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a broad survey of the civic knowledge of the American public with some disheartening results.

The survey found that only 26% of the respondents could name the three branches of our government. This represented a 12% decline from a previous survey five years earlier.

Equally shocking was that 31% of the respondents could not name even a single branch of our government.

Disturbing data does not end with a lack of civic knowledge but continues with Americans’ perception of their own government.

The Pew Research Foundation has been tracking public trust in our government since 1958. As you can imagine, seeing this information graphed on a page looks a bit like a death spiral.

This figure has steadily declined since the 1960s. The current figures from this year show that only 22% of the respondents trusted the government in Washington to “do the right thing most of the time.”

And a whopping 2% said our government “just about always” does the right thing. These figures should scare you.

Don’t get me wrong. A healthy skepticism of the government can be a good thing. But blanket distrust, coupled with civic ignorance and rampant misinformation, is a recipe for disaster.

America’s greatest enemies are not foreign tyrannies, though dangerous they might be. Our greatest enemies are the bad ideas that have miseducated Americans and bred ignorance so thoroughly for so long that many of us have forgotten what it means to be a free people.

Civic education

So, how do we change this disturbing trend?

It won’t be easy, but we must start with civic engagement and education. We must encourage our fellow Americans, especially our children, to study our history and learn from it – no matter how uncomfortable this might be for some people.

Education liberates human beings in the true sense. It liberates them from ignorance and confusion, from prejudice and delusion, and from untamed passions and fanciful hopes that degrade and destroy us as a civilized people.

It helps us to see the world more clearly and honestly.

And it can reveal what is right and good while taking up the hard but essential task of character formation.

Such an education can form free men and women who are self-reliant and responsible persons capable of governing themselves as individuals and taking part in self-government.

Jeb’s death

In the early summer of 1989, I was working on my parents’ farm when a stray dog wandered onto the property. He was extremely thin and appeared not to have eaten for several days. He had an injured right front leg that could bear no weight and he was clearly close to death.

I immediately loaded him in my truck and took him to my veterinarian.

I grew up in the country in East Tennessee. And while we loved and cared for our animals, it was the practice to treat them like chattel. This wasn’t intended as cruelty, but the value of farm animals was as livestock or for other working purposes.

Other animals, such as dogs and cats, had value for hunting, sporting or rodent control, but few people kept them as pets.

My veterinarian knew this was the case, so when I showed up with a stray dog that appeared to be of no particular breed, and after examination would require an amputation, he volunteered to euthanize the animal.

As he lay on the table, I looked him in the eyes. Sometimes, you can look an animal in the eyes and you both know what the other is thinking.

What I saw looking back at me was not anticipated relief from his endless pain but an animal that wanted to continue to fight. I decided to pay for the amputation and attempt a rehabilitation.

I named him Jeb and we had glorious summer. After a period of nursing, Jeb blossomed in his new surroundings. I never knew much about his origins, but he seemed to have taken on all the good traits of the many breeds that comprised him and none of the bad.

Mind you, three-legged dogs are not known for their speed, but he was fast enough. He was smart, loyal and obedient, and possessed incredible amounts of physical and moral courage.

We mostly took walks together, but he would also hunt on his own and operated as a self-appointed guard dog for the property. He quickly became the alpha dog in the area.

Later that year, while on one of our walks, Jeb stumbled in front of a mail truck. He wasn’t hit that hard, but just hard enough for it to be more than he could handle.

I loaded him again in my truck and took him back to the veterinarian. Dr. Thompson worked very hard, but he was unable to save him.

As I was burying my companion and friend that evening, I contemplated his greatness and I asked myself what made him greater than the sum of his parts.

How was he able to only take what was good from the many breeds of dog buried in his DNA and return none of the bad?

As I told you earlier, I’m a bit old fashioned. Because of this, I always carry some amount of currency and coin. I know physical money is slowly going by the wayside, but I find comfort in our legal tender over bitcoin.

These coins remind me of Jeb almost every day.

Take a moment to look closely at a quarter. There, on the reverse side, you’ll see the phrase E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. Our motto as a nation and our declaration that we, like Jeb, are greater than the sum of our parts.

I now have had the opportunity and the gift of more than 30 years to ponder the questions posed by Jeb’s death. He now represents to me everything that’s great about America. He serves as a metaphor for American exceptionalism.

He came from no particular background, took nothing and only gave in return. He, like all Americans, was a great cultural appropriator in the best sense, and we are like him. We take what is gifted to us by the many people and cultures that come to us and adopt their ways as our own. And mostly, we make it better.

When we are at our best, we take only the good and leave the bad behind. This is what gives us our strength, and it is this strength that gives me hope for our future.