The American Experiment: A Lesson for Today

Life is an experiment. We begin as infants. Everything that comes later is untried, at least in our own experience, thus everything we face is new – every time we pick up the phone or cross a street. Almost exactly fifty years ago, my then-fiancé Caroline (and who had been under pressure from her family about marrying a New Hampshire rube) told me, alright, we’ll get married; we’ll give it a try. We were married in April 1964. Our marriage (like all marriages) remains a work-in-progress. But that is what gives it excitement. It is what has kept the experience fresh.

The United States had an opportunity, rare for a nation, to begin with a clean slate, or at least a relatively clean one, in 1789. It was geographically large with a diverse population of about 2.8 million scattered over approximately 150,000 square miles. It had the benefit of English common law and the wisdom of philosopher-moralists from Plato to Adam Smith. The Founders knew that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights, should they prove successful, would become examples for all mankind. They also realized that no two political systems are ever exactly the same; as cultural and moral issues are unique to a people and state. Our Experiment began with the election of George Washington in late 1788 and early 1789, though its origins went back 400 years to the earliest settlers in Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. The American character was forged in that wilderness.

The Founders recognized that what they produced in Philadelphia was an experiment, unlike anything before attempted. They also recognized its fragility. Benjamin Franklin, exiting what is now Independence Hall in September 1787, was asked by a passer-by: “What have you accomplished?” Allegedly, his response was, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” Seventy-six years later, at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the country’s engagement in a great war, “testing” whether any nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and comprised “of the people, by the people, for the people,” could “long endure.” In defense of that “experiment,” the Civil War took the lives of three quarters of a million men. Their sacrifice allowed the Union to endure for another 150 years.

The concept of a people’s government was both radical and conservative. The Constitution was proposed and written by a few. It was then debated by a larger group. The finished product was then sent to the states where it was ratified by the many. It was radical, in that ultimate power lay with the people. It was conservative, in that checks and balances were imposed. America had no aristocracy, nor did it want one. Kings who served by divine right were left to the Europeans. While the founders frequently invoked God (our unalienable rights were endowed by “our Creator”), there was to be no central or State religion; people had come to this country to escape persecution, so they could pray freely to a God of their choice. Most importantly, they created a government in which ultimate power rested with the people, but exercised through their elected representatives.

James Madison predicted that the most likely invasion of natural rights would be the robbery of the few by the unpropertied many, whether by unjust taxation or debasement of the currency. With one percent of the population paying 36% of all federal income taxes, are we now approaching that point? With a dollar that has declined by a third over the past eleven years, are we debauching our currency? Continental Congressman Richard Lee once suggested that an indication of “elective despotism” would be when legislators passed laws from which they exempt themselves. Isn’t that what happened with the passage of ObamaCare?

To protect against that possibility, a mechanism of checks and balances was created, providing for a government with limited and defined powers. At a Memorial Day service in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge succinctly described the function and limitation of each branch: “The executive has sole command of the military forces, but he cannot raise a dollar of revenue. The legislature has the sole authority to levy taxes, but it cannot issue a command to a single soldier. The judiciary interprets and declares the law and the Constitution, but it can neither create nor destroy the right of a single individual.” He added: “The chief repository of power is in the legislature, chosen directly by the people at frequent elections.” But, “It does not perform an executive function.” The concept of revolution may have been revolutionary, but moderation and conservativism determined the means and the outcomes. They created institutions that would weather future storms.

Unlike the French and Russian Revolutions which were fought for equality and fraternity (and delivered neither), the American Revolution was fought to guaranty liberty, which included a provision for equal opportunity, and has delivered both…so far. Madison had observed that in a genuinely free society you will always have inequality. (As, of course is true in all societies.) People have different talents and abilities. Some are ambitious, others not. Some are energetic, some are passive. With varying skills and aspirations, some people will prosper and others will not. Definitions of happiness are as varied as are individuals. Government cannot force round pegs into square holes, but it can provide opportunity and ensure that each individual plays by the same rules and be subject to the same laws.

Is the experiment at risk of failure? Has the hypothesis on which we thought the American Experiment was based been invalidated? Much has been written about the loss of a moral sense. As America and the West have grown in material wealth, moral values have declined. Elitism has become pervasive within government bureaucracies. Cronyism is alive and well in the halls of Washington, in the canyons of Wall Street, and in the offices of big business and union leaders. The idea of a “nanny state” is becoming reality. Do we really need government to tell us what size drinks we should down, or how many calories exist in a “Big Mac?” Are the rights of a single person more important than the welfare of the many? We don’t permit an individual to stand up in a crowded theater and yell, “Fire!” when there is no fire; yet the police in New York are being discouraged from practicing “stop and frisk,” despite the program’s proven value. Are the rights of the accused more sacrosanct than those of victims? Civilized society cannot survive without laws and regulations, but neither can we become the Eloi, wholly dependent on the state. It is balance that must be found. It is why the American Experiment will always remain an experiment. We cannot let independence of spirit be exchanged for dependence on the state. We must be responsible: we cannot be enslaved.

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, enumerates the decline in community organizations. This has not been a sudden or recent change. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in a harsh but honest speech thirty-five years ago at Harvard’s commencement noted the shift. “The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even excess, but man’s responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer…All the celebrated technological achievements of progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the Twentieth Century’s moral poverty, which no one could have imagined even as late as the Nineteenth Century.” What has happened, Mr. Solzhenitsyn said, was a loss of civic courage. “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.” Some of that lack of courage is being countered by a growing number of people who are willing to challenge conventional thinking. They may have helped create political dissonance and polarization in Washington. They, and organizations like OpenTheBook.com, are condemned for being “outside the mainstream” and promoting dysfunction, but history has shown that they are the ones on the vanguard of change.

What came to fruition in 1789 was remarkable. A few dozen men in what was a remote part of the world created a government unique in the annals of history. It was an experiment and like most experiments must be monitored closely, to ensure it stays true to its intent. The government then created was based on the individual and the ideal of liberty. The Founders did their best to anticipate attempts to wrest power from the individual, but they could not have anticipated the growth of the welfare state. Their concern lay more with despotism in the name of “fairness and justice.” They understood the dynamic between the people and their government – more dependency equals less individual independence. The expanding reach of government is insidious in the damage it does to independence, subtlety but irreparably. It is a concern better understood by those born enslaved than those who have grown up with liberty. In the same Harvard commencement address, Mr. Solzhenitsyn said: “Even biology tells us that a high degree of habitual well-being is not advantageous to a living organism.”

Experiments, whether we speak of marriage or a political system, are always works-in-progress. They can never be taken for granted. Whether we were born in the United States or we emigrated to this country, no matter our economic or social background and regardless of our race or religion, we have been provided a unique opportunity, because of the men who created the American Experiment. We have been lucky. It behooves all of us to ensure that the experiment continues.


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