Before we debate American history, we need to recognize its uniqueness
In recent days, the history of the United States has become the subject of widespread discussion and debate. Some have argued that this history is deeply flawed, pointing to the existence of slavery. In 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, slavery was legal everywhere in the world and was an intrinsic part of the biblical Judeo-Christian tradition. Slavery dominated Ancient Greece and Rome. Many at the Constitutional Convention wanted to eliminate it at the beginning, but that, unfortunately, was not accomplished until the Civil War. Some contemporary critics, such as the author of “The 1619 Project,” suggest that slavery was, somehow, unique to America and even argue that the American Revolution was fought, in part, to maintain slavery.
Neither of these ideas, as many historians have pointed out, bear any relationship to real history.
Our history is, indeed, complicated, as is the history of other countries. But it is also unique.
Our government is the oldest existing form of government in the world today. Unfortunately, too few Americans understand their own history very well. If they did, they would recognize its essential contribution.
The Constitution of the United States was not the first constitution ever to have been drafted by a group of men assembled in what they themselves called a Constitutional Convention. Between 1776 and 1780, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, and Massachusetts held constitutional conventions. Nor was the Constitution of the United States the first explicitly formulated Constitution.
In a treatise on Greek constitutions, Aristotle described and discussed more than a hundred of them. But, historian Mortimer Adler tells us,
“The American Constitution created the first federal republic in the history of the world. The first objective or aim mentioned in its Preamble, a purpose distinctly different from all the other objectives mentioned thereafter, is ‘to form a more perfect union.’Union of what? Of the 13 sovereign states that, in the preceding five years, had been United under the Articles of Confederation. A federal republic is thus seen to involve a plurality of sovereignties…”
When the Constitution was written, the framers could look every place in the world for an example of a free society with limited government—-and find none to follow. No existing government in 1787 was designed to provide its people with freedom, nor had any in past history.
The Framers set out to create something which had never been created before—-an inherently perilous undertaking. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina asked:
“Is there, at this moment, a nation upon earth that enjoys this right, where the true principles of representation are understood and practiced, and where all authority flows from and returns at stated periods to the people? I answer, there is not.”
Then he asked what the present governments of the world were based upon, and said: “To fraud, to force, or accident, all the governments we know have owed their births.” Of the work being done at the Constitutional Convention, Pinckney declared:
“To the philosophical mind, how new and awful an instance do the United States at a present exhibit in the political world! They exhibit, sir, the first instance of a people, who, being dissatisfied with their government—-unattacked by a foreign force, and undisturbed by domestic uneasiness—-coolly and deliberately resort to the virtue and good sense of their country, for a correction of their public errors.”
The achievements of the Constitutional Convention were considered miraculous in their own day. In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette on Feb.7, 1788, George Washington wrote,
“It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle,that the delegates from so many different states…should unite in forming a system of national government.”
The Framers understood that they had accomplished something unprecedented in history. James Madison reflected,
“Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid decent regard to the opinion of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit posterity will be indebted for the possession and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theater in favor of private rights and public happiness.”
“Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursue a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments that have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.”
One of the unprecedented breakthroughs that the framers included in the Constitution was that there would be no religious test for public office or for citizenship.
Elsewhere in the Western world, Catholics were without rights in Protestant countries, Protestants were without rights in Catholic countries, while Jews had equal rights in neither.
Charles Pinckney lamented,
“How many thousands of the subjects of Great Britain at this moment labor under civil disabilities, merely on account of their religious persuasions! To the liberal and enlightened mind, the rest of Europe affords a melancholy picture of the depravity of human nature, and of the total subversion of those rights, without which we should suppose no people could be happy or content.”
In Pinckney’s view,
“From the European world are no precedents to be drawn for a people who think they are capable of governing themselves. Instead of receiving instructions from them, we may, with pride, affirm that, new as this country is in terms of settlement, inexperienced as she must be upon questions of government, she still has read more useful lessons to the old world, she has made them more acquainted with their own rights, than they had been otherwise for centuries.”
Professor Samuel Huntington points to the truly historic meaning of the Constitutional Convention and its product:
“This is a new event in the history of mankind. Heretofore most governments have been formed by tyrants and imposed on mankind by force. Never before did a people, in time of peace and tranquility, meet together by their representatives and, with calm deliberation, frame for themselves a system of government.”
The framers of the Constitution were under no illusion that they had written a document that would stand the test of time without additions and changes. It is for this reason that Article V of the Constitution sets forth the process by which amendments could be adopted. James Madison stated that the founders hoped their successors would “improve and perpetuate” the Constitution.
That the Constitution has survived for more than 230 years and enabled Americans to live in freedom and attract to our shores men and women of every race and religion and nation who sought liberty, is testimony to the extraordinary achievement of the framers.
“The framers,” said Professor Forrest McDonald, “were guided by principles but not by formulas. They understood that no form or system of government is universally desirable or workable; instead, if government is to be viable , it must be made to conform to human nature and to the genius of the people—-to their customs, morals, habits, institutions, aspirations. The framers did just that, and thereby used old materials to create a new order for the ages.”
Indeed, the founding fathers were committed to building a new civilization that would become a model for mankind. Even before the Declaration of Independence, John Adams saw the human hope which was flowering in America and wrote:
“I always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all, over the world.”
As with all enterprises of imperfect human beings, America has many flaws and imperfections. We have tried to correct and overcome many of these, and have often succeeded. Other serious problems and shortcomings are yet to be resolved. But we should recognize the uniqueness of our history and celebrate our accomplishments as well as confront the continuing problems we face. All too often, our history, in recent days, has been portrayed more as a continuing dilemma than as an achievement. This is harmful to a proper understanding of America’s real place in history.
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