The men who created the United States of America at the end of the 18th century, came together in a boisterous, bickering fraternity, and worked with uncommon determination to create something unique in statecraft. They saw beyond the boundaries of their personal experience, and embarked upon a great experiment that swept thirteen autonomous colonies into a unique and historic confederation of the United States of America.
The political process was plagued, not unlike today, with jealousies, spite, and biting competitiveness throughout the dangerous and difficult course of putting this country together. They fought bitterly among themselves throughout the entire process, and their bickering was the subject of gossip, anonymous pamphlets, and duels that kept tongues wagging from New Hampshire to Virginia.
In the end, however, they compromised where they could, overcame their differences, and created something that went far beyond any form of governance that the world had ever seen – a democratic republic – based on an eloquent and original theory that was firmly rooted in their vision of a better world.
They embodied that vision in the Declaration of Independence, in which they first demanded the right to break away from England. The great Commonwealth, ruled ineptly by King George III, considered the thirteen colonies an intrinsic and inseparable part of the British Empire. The patriots, however, made their intentions clear. By signing their names at the end of this document, these earliest Americans put their own lives in mortal jeopardy. They were committing treason against the British Crown, an act punishable by death of the most cruel and painful kind.
Their vision went far further than simply breaking ranks with Britain. They conceived a theory of governance based on individual equality and a new kind of government that broke with centuries of a tradition that had given inordinate powers to the throne over the lives and activities of those they ruled. Instead, they gave the people the right to govern themselves.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The words were as revolutionary as the war that followed. This basic premise formed the foundation for America’s natural growth from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
When Alexis de Tocqueville came to the fledgling United States in 1831, he observed that rather than using the substance of European philosophy to form their concept of how a society should be run, Americans employed a unique “philosophical method”, avoiding “the bondage of system and habit . . . to accept tradition only as a means of information.” He dubbed the new nation “the great experiment . . . a spectacle for which the world has not been prepared by the history of the past”.
It was this independence of spirit and thought, breaking away from the deeply ingrained traditions of Europe, that gave Americans the ability to break new ground in which they planted the seeds of democracy and opportunity they created a form of government which they called a republic. It was both original and liberating.
Defined as “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them,” the republic broke the old conventions that were considered by traditionalists to be essential to orderly governance. The republic was not a monarchy, such as had existed in Europe for centuries, and differed from the ancient Greek concept of “democracy” by placing the sovereignty in each individual person, rather than in the collective. This concept of personal responsibility was inherent in the roots of this newly independent society and became the platform for its future development into a mighty nation.
It is undeniably true that from those early days, and throughout our history, cruelty, corruption, self-interest, and the basest of human characteristics – on the part of the governing and the governed alike – has marred the genuinely elevated concepts of human rights protected by the Constitution. Yet there is little doubt that overall, America’s contribution to the world at large has been great and lasting. It carried the American people honorably through nearly two hundred years of history, including a civil war and two world wars, before it began to break down.
In today’s unstable world, where our own fractious government falters between the paths of fatal weakness and redeeming world leadership, the need to re-examine what has happened to us and where we are going next is urgent and existential. As we look back on our national passage through two hundred and thirty-eight years, and forward into the unknown future, the most striking reality is that those very qualities that made this country great and a leader in the world of nations, are the very characteristics that may lead to our destruction in the twenty-first century.
The founding fathers succeeded because, despite their ideological differences and bitter controversies, they talked to each other, they compromised, they reached across the chasm of their differences and enabled themselves to build a lasting architecture on which our nation could endure.
We stand at a crossroads today, and must choose between the two paths – one that will lead us away from those concepts that made our nation great, and one that will lead us forward to a renewed strength of purpose, based on the principles that once changed the world.