Hope guided our nation from the start
Among the grumbling and grievances that led up to the American Revolution, an idea grew that the colonies shouldn’t just demand respect as loyal British subjects – rather, that they should go it alone. The notion spread rapidly, and soon it took hold so tightly the Brits couldn’t root it out.
Back in England, the idea sounded both treacherous and laughable. It’s not hard to see why, but there was something to it.
Something was happening, and King George III didn’t know what it was.
Partly it was a culmination of the American Enlightenment, a fertile intellectual period when enthusiasm flowered for study of science, philosophy, religion, government and other areas of thought. Our nation was largely conceived by people like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, men with a ravenous hunger for learning and ideas – including those of the European Enlightenment, which had begun in the 17th century – and a drive to change their world.
Meanwhile, among non-bookworms, the idea of independence made sense for the simplest reason imaginable – because Americans, as they were now calling themselves, were an independent folk. Colonists had come here for opportunity and freedom – more than their old countries could provide. They weren’t just English; they came from many nations. Many resented it when the faraway British king and Parliament cracked the whip to boss them around.
Still, it took a long time for the Continental Congress to shift from demanding fairness to declaring independence, and even when it came to that, it faced severe opposition.
Fact was, American colonists had it pretty good. England exerted its authority here and there, but with it so far away, and with its empire stretched all over the planet, the colonists enjoyed a relatively large degree of benign neglect.
That wasn’t the case a few years later with the French rebels, who had been oppressed into grinding poverty by a flagrantly rich nobility. Likewise for the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutionaries of the 20th century. Rather, Americans of the 18th century largely had enough freedom, education and prosperity to see how things could be better.
Our revolution was born more of hope than of desperation.
Better yet, the nation’s founding charters, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, were crafted with an exceptional mix of intelligence, idealism, historical perspective, pragmatism and humanism.
Granted, governing the United States has been messy from the get-go, but that was inevitable since our system has always relied on compromise. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were wary of tyranny of the majority, so they built in checks and balances such as strong executive and judicial branches, a bifurcated Congress and strong protection of individual rights. On the downside, these can lead to gridlock, but they also, over time, help ensure stronger policies.
The Americans who fought the revolution would probably be thrilled with how this country has turned out. We don’t have dictators or monarchs, as later revolutions produced. Power shifts peacefully from one elected leader to another. The American model has inspired and changed the world. The people of this nation continue to live by our system – apparently because they like it. Americans mostly have upheld our Constitution for the 227 years since it was ratified, amending it over time through the prescribed process. We have only had one civil war, which stands as a bloody reminder to solve internal disputes without violence.
The hope that’s been part of Americans’ DNA from the beginning continues to compel us forward through whatever messes we find our nation in.
Everyone knows the U.S. is far from perfect, but when you pull back and put it in perspective, it’s a wonderful place. We love it, we’re proud of it, and we continue to be amazed by how well designed this unprecedented experiment was way back then.