Today I was going through the history of the American Revolution with a 19 year old from Ethiopia in preparation for his citizenship test, and one phrase kept sticking in my mind-“the American Experiment.”
It really was an experiment, to create a large diverse nation not based around a common ethnicity, religion, language, or cultural background, but rather an idea-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.
In my mind, it’s still an open question as to whether the American Experiment will succeed; whether government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall…perish from the earth. This experiment has gone through plenty of trials and failures in the past (slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, expulsion of Native American, Korematsu, etc.); there is no guarantee that simply because our ancestors managed to resolve these problems does not mean that we will do so in the future. It’s up to each generation to renew their commitment to the American ideal and determine for themselves exactly what this commitment means. If Thomas Jefferson were to be transported two centuries into the future, he most likely would not approve of the society that we’ve created, but it was his words in the Declaration of Independence that unleashed the possibility of such a society. In any case, our duty as Americans does not consist of fealty to the flawed reality of the Founders, but rather to create a society that lives up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence as much as is possible.
P.S. This does not mean I’ve changed my mind about the durability of our Constitutional order-no amount of suppression of public unions or even mass-genital-touching by our government seriously risks tyranny. Instead, I think it’s the accumulation of a nearly infinite amount of daily choices by Americans that determine the quality, if not the survival, of our polity.