Is the Great American Experiment dead, or simply on life support? And, if it is, how do we revive it?
On January 9, 1790 George Washington uttered these words:
“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.”
In 1835, in the English translation of his seminal book, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
“In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.”
While the translation of Toqueville’s actual French words has been debated over the years, what he wrote, and what Washington said, have endured into what we now call “The Great American Experiment.”
In 1787, when the Founding Fathers finished writing the U.S. Constitution in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin replied to a citizen who asked what the Convention had produced, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
In a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams in 1821, five years before both passed away on the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote,
“The flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.”
I wonder now, after 244 years, from 1776 to 2020, if “The Great American Experiment” is dead.
So, what is “The Great American Experiment?”
In July 2019, Scott Shay, a leading businessman, thought leader, and author, contributed this essay to Asia Times magazine:
“The Great American Experiment can be summed up as rejection of the European Ancient Regime in favor of political equality in the form of a constitutional republic. While America’s founding fathers excluded African slaves, native Americans and women from this equality, with devastating results, still the American Revolution was a first step – a turning point in human history. As the historian Jonathan Israel writes in his book The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, the American Revolution set the tone for all the subsequent political revolutions of the modern era. American revolutionary ideals also continued to be the point of reference for those excluded from it in reality.“
Shay goes on to opine:
“Today, at a time when we are finally coming closer to rectifying the most important omissions to the great American Experiment with regard to race and gender, we are also seeing an unprecedented breakdown of the democratic process. Despite a lot of talk about democracy and equality, Americans increasingly no longer understand these concepts. It is therefore worth returning to the biblical sources to reacquaint ourselves with the conceptual foundations for democracy and justice.“
I don’t know about you, but when I was in elementary school (Brooklyn’s PS 198) one of the few statements we had to memorize was this, the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States:
“We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Those words meant virtually nothing to me when I was eight years old; they mean everything to me at seventy-four. But today, I wonder if my understanding of those words is the same as everyone else’s.
- A More Perfect Union – Is my definition of a “Perfect Union” the same as those who attend Trump rallies? Does a “Perfect Union” include people of color, immigrants, the less fortunate, the media? Watch those rallies and you’ll ask the same question.
- Establish Justice – Whose justice? Donald Trump’s? William Barr’s? Or rather Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s or Martin Luther King’s? I’m not sure. Are you?
- Insure Domestic Tranquility – Does the current President of the United States even understand the word “tranquility?” Or, as his actions would suggest, is he confusing it with “agitation,” “chaos” and “turbulence?” Recent actions by his administration and his speeches at his campaign rallies would suggest the latter.
- Provide for the Common Defense – Is part of the “Common Defense” defending the country from foreign interference in our most sacred democratic right, the right to vote in a free and fair election? Doesn’t feel that way.
- Promote the General Welfare – Promoting the “General Welfare,” in my definition, would include protecting the public from the ravages of a pandemic; it would mean that scientists and medical experts, not political appointees and unqualified West Wing hacks should be informing the policies. What we’re seeing now feels more like the “promotion of the general UNWELFARE for the purpose of trying to win an election!
- Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity – Will there even be a posterity if the current decimation of environmental rules continue? Will there be a posterity if the people in charge deny science and call climate change a hoax? Will there be a posterity if we leave our children with a less safe planet and an America deeply in debt? I think not.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a book, “It Can’t Happen Here.” (It was adapted into a play in 1936). The book is about a demagogue, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, who is elected President of the United States after a fear mongering campaign in which he also promises economic and social reforms and the restoring of “traditional” values and patriotism. After the election, Windrip imposes his “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man,” and takes complete control of the government, imposing totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force.
It can’t happen here? But has it? And is it still playing out?
Is the “Great American Experiment” dead, or simply on life support? And, if it is on life support, how do we revive it?
I guess we’ll get that answer on November 3.