Sunday, July 11, 2010

The American Experiment

Most people living inside the United States feel that they are living in a special country unlike any other on earth but most don't have much of an understanding as to why their country is special.
Some would cite our economic success as a nation as our claim to uniqueness, but we're just the current example of this success in a long line of nations who have also achieved unprecedented economic success.
The most common reason that people feel that the United States has a special status is our "freedom". Not many people can really explain what this means and to a large degree in the modern world this isn't really unique either. What are we free to do here in the United States that can't be done in a multitude of other countries around the world? Anyone who can give me one example of a unique freedom we have that can't be found elsewhere gets a free cookie.

Here's the thing. The United States of America most definitely IS special and unique in several ways that we often forget.

First, the United States is unique in that it was not established because of common culture or geographic convenience as has every other country on the planet before it. We have never had a singular common background that has held us together. The foundation of this country was not an accident and it wasn't formed over time. We didn't form a nation in order to fend off the Turks, the British, the French, the Spanish or anyone else. This nation was established on an ideal. (I'll come back to this in a bit)
For this reason it has been possible over the last two and a quarter centuries for people to flock here from around the world and establish a life that they could call their own. They were a part of American culture because American culture was whatever they made it. Though Americans haven't always liked it, an immigrant is able to come to the United States without being an outsider. As soon as they gain citizenship they are as American as anyone else here, regardless of race, culture, or language.

Our second trait that establishes the United States as a truly unique place on earth is that it was established as an experiment of a new kind of political thought. In the 17th and 18th century a flurry of new political ideas appeared in response to a new view of the world that resulted from the scientific revolution. This period of history gave men a new found confidence that they could change the world around them and use science and knowledge to make the world a better place for humankind. I am of course speaking of the Enlightenment, when the great minds of the time felt that they had emerged from the darkness of ignorance and stepped into the light, and through a scientific lens were able to see the world as it really was for the first time.
As exciting as this time was, in which concepts like free will, individual liberty, a social contract for government and very nearly everything else we take for granted in the modern world were first formed, there was very little room for this new liberal ideology to be tested. It remained mostly theory.
The founding fathers of the United States changed that. As educated men, many of them had spent countless hours studying the works of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes among others, and with the rebellion against the British government complete they were finally provided with an opportunity to put the ideas of these great minds to test. Constitutional limits on government, checks and balances, equality, and basic inalienable human rights were all ideals that had never been tested before.

The third, and possibly most important, part of the United States that establishes our uniqueness is the source of our rights. According to the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Our rights are the natural, some would say God-given, rights that belong to all men of the world, though throughout human history have been restricted unjustly by governments. By definition our rights are beyond the scope of the government, they come from a higher source and no government could ever have the right to take them from us.
No government before had been established as such; a secular government created for the secular matters of men yet, through its own founding documents, bound by the natural rights given to human beings by a higher power. For the first time the people did not derive permission for their freedoms from the government that ruled them, their rights came from a higher source and the government derived permission to act from those that it governed.

Our uniqueness comes from this experiment. As much as we as Americans have fallen short of our own ideals, those ideals have always been there to guide us along the way, something that no other country before us ever had. The very founding documents of the United States, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the document that established our separation from European rule, the Declaration of Independence, have served as a means to constantly examine ourselves and our society so that we may continue to better ourselves and perhaps one day live up to the ideals that we had so boldly set out for.
The American experiment had never been tried before and continues to this very day. We live it every day, and that is what makes us special.

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