An American Response
The Founding Fathers accomplished something beyond miraculous in declaring and winning independence from the almighty British empire. They tapped into something that was ripe for the picking, a sentiment that was so powerful that it changed the world. The change that occurred isn’t eternal but fragile. There have been several moments in our history that have proved this, but each time we’ve responded with strength and fortitude. Each generation is called upon to respond to adverse forces, and ours will be no exception.
The centuries since the American Revolution have solidified the founders as heroes and, nearly, gods. Their successes have been magnified and their shortcomings buried. I don’t admire them because they were infallible, I admire them because they were imperfectly impressive. George Washington is glorified as the man who wouldn’t be king, but he relished such a modest image. Does that make him truly humble? Thomas Jefferson authored our solemn creed of human equality, but he owned slaves. Does that make him a hypocrite? Each of these men fills me with intense admiration and sober reflection.
We know that many of the ideas found at the heart of the American Revolution were not original. We know that the founders were well-read and highly educated. For example, English philosopher John Locke believed that government should protect life, liberty, and property. Sound familiar? Baron de Montesquieu supported a constitutional system of government with a separation of powers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau contended that government is a social contract entered into by the people, who are sovereign. William Blackstone argued that the primary end of human laws is to maintain the rights of individuals. And Adam Smith advised that markets remain free and self-regulating.
We know that the Declaration of Independence was a contentious and reluctant action by the colonists. We know that the United States Constitution was a hard fought win for the Federalists. We know that both documents are a testament to their incredible courage, difficult compromises, and unfinished business.
We’ve often been faced with the existential question found posed in Federalist № 1: “It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”
Are we really capable of maintaining good government through reflection and choice? I recently read an article that caused me much consideration. It’s title, Why the Nazis Loved America, could certainly be considered ‘click bait.’ How could the country I love be associated with something so abhorrent? I’m not ignorant to our own blemishes or faults, but no successful society is without them. The true test of any character is the ability to adapt and improve, a country’s included. Near the end of the article it reads: “Despite all of its similarities to, even its instructiveness for, the Germany of the 1930s, the United States did not fall into authoritarianism and become the Germany of the 1940s. America corrected its course.”
Since our onset we’ve more than once flirted with our own downfall. We’ve more than once flirted with proving ourself a fraud, a country that espouses liberty but is only more evidence of what Rousseau once said: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” What good was the American Revolution if we threw off the chains of Great Britain for chains of the American persuasion? Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned, prior generations have corrected the course and we’ve remained a fierce advocate for the rights of humankind. Not only did we fend off Nazism internally, we helped defeat the Nazi military campaign abroad.
In times of uncertainty, it’s important to reconnect with the spirit of 1776. We may not be facing the world’s largest military power, as we did then, but we certainly have worthy adversaries today. We’re faced with poverty, terrorism, and climate change, to name a few. We’re also faced with a rise in nationalism and fear-mongering, the United States included. And we may yet face the conquering pursuits of another nation. Our grandparents didn’t ask for the Great Depression and World War II to be their call to arms. It’s unlikely we will have a choice in our call either, only how we choose to respond.