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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

The Ongoing American Experiment

I thought this op-ed from the Greensburg Daily News by Paul W. Barada first published on July 28, 2020 was worth revisiting this week.

Times being what they are, it might be worthwhile to take a look at the ideals upon which this country was founded just over 244 years ago and see how far we’ve come living up to them – I’ve made particular note of “living up to them” because that’s what we’ve been doing since way back in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was first written – living up to them, but we’re not all the way there to making them a reality.

It should be kept in mind that, at the time, no nation in the history of world had ever set itself up for self-rule or self-governance. So, what the Founders wrote were, at best, aspirational goals toward which we’ve been striving for nearly 250 years! Obviously, it’s not an easy process.

The ideals upon which this nation was founded were democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality. The underlying, most basic, ideal was freedom. Not freedom in the absolute sense, but freedom that is conditional upon the freedom of others as well. For example, freedom of opportunity, freedom to pursue prosperity and success achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. Few have put it better than James Adams as recently as 1931 when he wrote in his book Epic of America, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

To be more specific, the Declaration of Independence says:

“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.”

Remember, nothing this radical had ever been attempted before in the history of the world! The United States was founded on one simple notion, unlike some other forms of government such as authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and dictatorships – and that notion is freedom. The other forms concentrate power in the hands of one individual or in the hands of a single party. American democracy puts that same power into the hands of the people. How well we’ve handled it is another, much longer story. But the point is we’ve tried to handle freedom and the American ideals that are built upon it.

Before going too far into theories of government, however, we need back up just a little. Let’s take a closer at the phrase in the Declaration that says, “…the pursuit of happiness.”

Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution of the United States promise happiness itself as a right. We are free to pursue it, a major component of American ideals, through hard work, as James Adams pointed out. We are not entitled to have it handed to us by government or to have the happiness achieved by others taken from them and given to others by government.

Now, for all those who are dissatisfied with their share of the American dream, as represented by our foundational ideals, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come and to realize how far we still have to go to achieve those ideals.

One of the most obvious is the American Civil War. As Robert Penn Warren wrote, the Civil War was the ultimate test to see if we really meant what the Founders said about pursuing life, liberty and happiness. Through four long and bloody years the nation nearly tore itself apart to preserve the Union and to free those held in slavery. The human cost was over 600,000 lives. The benefit was freeing nearly 4 million slaves and preserving the federal union of the states. The Civil War was, perhaps, the single most important step forward toward really beginning to live up to those American ideals the Founders articulated.

Proof of the value of those ideals can also be seen in how many people want to come here from other countries, even today! All of the ideals that define freedom have brought immigrants here from all over the world even since they heard what we stand for way back in 1776.

Ben Rogge, a Distinguished Professor of Economics at Wabash College once said that the best way to judge how well a form of government is working it to look at the way people “vote with their feet.” What he meant was defined by the Cold War between the United States and the old Soviet Union, in the days when the Berlin Wall was still standing. West Berlin was administered by the United States and East Berlin by the Communists. The question Rogge asked was whether the wall was intended to keep people in our out. Hundreds, if not thousands, of East Berliners were trying to get out, or as Rogge put it, they were voting for Democracy with their feet. No one was trying to get into Communist East Berlin, in other words. They were voting for freedom from Communism and the wall was built to keep them in!

Still, we have a way to go toward actually achieving those lofty goals the Founders set out for us. It’s been well over two centuries and we’re still working toward those ideals, but the point, it seems to me, is that we’re still trying to reach them.

Remember, no other country in the history of the world had ever tried what has been called the “American Experiment” and we’re still working on it, but for those who would tear down what has been accomplished so far, despite how seemingly long it has taken, my advice is to try living someplace else and see if you’re more or less free there.

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