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The Great Experiment?

The Great Experiment?

I thought it would be appropriate to think a little bit about America on her 242nd birthday. My last post highlighted some of the challenges we face in keeping this beautiful nation over the coming decade, in whole or even in part. But to be able to gauge our success in that endeavor, or even to plan how we might begin the attempt, we have to have some idea of what it is that we’re celebrating and preserving.

Whole books could be (and have been) written about what America is, and without massive frameworks and histories laid out, it’s hard to even begin to describe what makes America; it isn’t the land, it isn’t the people, and it isn’t the values, although it has something to do with all of these. Any one-sentence summary or categorical definition would feel like a gross over-simplification.

But we can get a better idea of what America is by clarifying what it is not. Many oversimplified conceptions and false notions of what America is have become imbued with a kind of sanctity, more the result of their simplicity and repetition than based upon any bearing in fact. That America is, uniquely, a “nation of immigrants” is one such cheap talking point, as is the “melting pot” descriptor. Vox Day and Red Eagle explode both of these in their book about America and its failed guardians, where those phrases are revealed as thoughtless evaluations by foreigners, which ultimately neglect the importance of the people who comprise America.

But there is one phrase that is much older and more powerful as a part of the American mythos: the “great experiment.” Is America a great experiment? And if so, in what?

The phrase comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, widely considered a classical study and observation about what America is essentially all about:

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.

As the Honorable John T Morgan identifies in his introduction to the work, the government itself was in fact not an experiment:

When the Constitution was thus perfected and established, a new form of government was created, but it was neither speculative nor experimental as to the principles on which it was based. If they were true principles, as they were, the government founded upon them was destined to a life and an influence that would continue while the liberties it was intended to preserve should be valued by the human family. Those liberties had been wrung from reluctant monarchs in many contests, in many countries, and were grouped into creeds and established in ordinances sealed with blood, in many great struggles of the people. They were not new to the people. They were consecrated theories, but no government had been previously established for the great purpose of their preservation and enforcement. That which was experimental in our plan of government was the question whether democratic rule could be so organized and conducted that it would not degenerate into license and result in the tyranny of absolutism, without saving to the people the power so often found necessary of repressing or destroying their enemy, when he was found in the person of a single despot.

The claim, it seems, is that the institutions of government have not changed, but the principles lying beneath these ancient and refined institutions have. Is this true?

One might begin by looking backwards. Given America’s Republican ancestry in Britain, in Rome, and in Greece, we would expect there to be no such expressions of liberty at the heart of governance prior to the establishment of America. But this is not the case:

According to these advocates of democracy, no sooner is one man, or several, elevated by  wealth and power, which produce pomp and pride, than the idle and the timid give way, and bow down to the arrogance of riches. They add, on the contrary, that if the people knew how to maintain its rights, nothing could be more glorious and prosperous than democracy. They themselves would be the sovereign dispensers of laws, judgments, war, peace, public treaties, and finally, the fortune and life of each individual citizen; and this condition of things is the only one which, in their opinion, can be called a Commonwealth, that is to say, a constitution of the people. It is by this principle that, according to them, a people sometimes vindicates its liberty from the domination of kings and nobles, for kings are not requisite to free peoples, nor the power and wealth of aristocracies. They deny, moreover, that it is fair to reject this general constitution of freemen, on account of the vices of the unbridled populace. They say that if this democracy be united, and directs all its efforts to the safety and freedom of the community, nothing can be stronger or more durable.

–Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Republica (51 BC)

Cicero, in fact, does not advocate Democracy in De Republica, but a balance between the three primary forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. This, in his view, is the optimal way to achieve stability and harmony, and happens to be the blend which America’s founding fathers opted for as well.

De Tocqueville’s book was not about the “Republic” of America, however. It was about “Democracy” in America, a system which America was decidedly not, despite being slightly more democratic on the balance than other previous republics. It represents an outsider’s view, more French than American in nature, perhaps reflecting the author’s own bias and cultural values.

America’s war for independence happened only 13 years before France’s, but the two similar revolutions were marked by decidedly different outcomes. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke predicted that the French Revolution would end disastrously because of its idealism. His opinion of the American revolution, however, was far more positive. Although he preferred a peaceful resolution between England and the colonies, he was sympathetic to the concrete grievances America held toward the crown. But perhaps most of all, he gives a brief account of what America is, in a manner that distinguishes it from the stray course of England, and the positively disastrous course of France:

…the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The colonists emigrated from you when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found.

In other words, America is not an experiment, in government or in underlying principles. It is a personalized refinement of the least experimental, most empirical system of government ever devised, adapted to the national character and climate of English colonists on the North American continent. Contrary to the French idealism which has caused the destruction of everything it touches, American government, liberty, and culture are all concrete, not idealistic; they are adopted and adapted from tradition, not rolled out untried as some kind of test.

So in the spirit of American patriotism–which has always been touched by a healthy dose of anti-French sentiment–let us celebrate America, not as an experiment, but as the great and gradually-built inheritance that it is. Our legacy stretches all the way back to Sparta, through the best periods of Roman and English history, and serves as a model for nations around the world today. Although our founders improved it, they did not invent it… and why should we desire them to have done so? Did they not do enough in merely preserving the best that history had to offer, let alone improving it?

Let us ditch the French intellectuals — in de Tocqueville, in Emma Lazarus, and any others — and their attempts to make American success a vicarious victory for their own failed idealism. America was not a victory for “human rights,” for abstract “liberty,” or “emancipation” from the tyranny of nature, despite accomplishing much in the way of these things. Its call was not liberté, égalité, fraternité. It achieved what France sought but failed to achieve because of its pragmatism, its respect for tradition, and its circumspection in the pursuit of its own sovereignty.

So in celebration of that living sovereignty and the liberty and security which it has given to us, happy Independence Day, and may we see many more explosive and celebratory fourths in the centuries to come.

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