Since the earliest settlers, the people who flocked to what became the United States of America did so in pursuit of the opportunity for self-government. Some came seeking religious liberty. Others came looking for economic opportunity. And many came not because they chose to, but because they were brought here in bondage. Our continuing story is one of a diverse people trying to find a way to make the rules that allow us to live together, peacefully and in prosperity.
That’s not to say we’ve been perfect from the start. There have been missteps along the way to where we are now. There have been some, almost unforgivable, corrected through the shedding of the blood of our countrymen seeking, as Lincoln said, “to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Admittedly, there is still much to do. That we have succeeded at all is a tribute to the idea we are and must be a self-governing people. It’s an idea older than the republic itself, something at the root of who we are as a country and a people. It was in 1619 that the original colonists from what is known now as Virginia came together at Jamestown to establish the first constituent assembly, the first legislature in the New World.
Wherever the idea came from - some attribute it to the Greeks and Romans, some it was born of necessity, and others that it was borrowed from the governing structures of Native American tribes interacting with the European settlers - it has become a powerful tool for humankind’s advancement. It is the vehicle through which we have, slowly and sometimes too deliberately, written the rules that allow us to live in harmony with one another.
The traditions that began at Jamestown are not just in a direct line to the Virginia General Assembly but to every state legislature in the land. They are a diverse group of institutions, as unique amongst themselves as the people they represent. Most sit for only part of the year or biannually, and only a fifth or so are in session year-round, from election to election. They are comprised of as many trades and professions and each member brings various experiences and viewpoints to them. They meet to discuss and debate the issues our communities face and to propose and exchange solutions to the problems too big for a single locality to handle on its own.
The process of exchange isn’t confined to the individual states. Local leaders and legislators should take advantage of the various opportunities presented to them to interact with others who hold similar positions. The annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which I lead, just concluded in Austin, Texas is one example of the kinds of forums that make the exchange of ideas possible.
The states are where the substantive debate and discussion is happening today. The partisan paralysis in Washington has made the actions of local governments as problems solvers more critical than ever before, meaning they must be the best they can be. Their constituents expect it of them.
This is not an easy task in a complex world. The issues they face, from competitive pipe infrastructure bidding to how wildfires are best prevented, from the minutiae of state budgets to the arguments for and against criminal justice reformers and blockchain require a type of expertise not needed in 1619. They can’t, therefore, do everything alone and it would be fruitless to try.
The better way is to do it together - just as the early settlers did at Jamestown. They meet with their fellow legislators from other states, who have already faced this or that issue. They learn from the best people to learn from.
The idea of the citizen-legislator citizen is essential to the continuation of self-government. Rule by the experts lacks the accountability one must live up to when living among the people for whom the laws are made.
Nelson is the chief executive office of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization bringing state legislators and stakeholders together to develop public policy beneficial to the free market and individual liberty.