Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due: the French. Had their fleet not intervened at Yorktown we might still be speaking British now. Furthermore, beyond French military assistance throughout the Revolutionary War, French loans were critical to the formation and sustaining of our nationhood (yes, we’ve had a national debt from the very get go). True, we can brag about saving France in the Second World War (it was quite a bit in our interest to do so). But without the French there wouldn’t have been an us to begin with.
Though some Americans in the post-war period have taken to boasting a lot, and a strain of our nationalist right-wing says that we should never admit to getting or needing help, it seems the wiser part of national self-preservation, not to mention factuality to remember there is no shame in needing help, and acknowledging that as a nation, particularly when it comes to our founding ideas, we have had a lot.
Some might say the Fourth of July is the least appropriate time to bring this up. I would argue it is the most appropriate time, since hubris rather than excessive humility or insufficient self-regard is our most problematic national attribute at the present time.
In that vein it might be important to note that the original Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word happiness came from happenstance, meaning luck. The Declaration may have utilized the newer interpretation of happiness with, “pursuit of happiness,” distinguishing something one achieves from simple good fortune. But the truth of our history is that old-fashioned happenstance, and luck have been very, very good to us.
America had that rare beginning among nations, of starting out with a vast continent of abundant mineral and agriculture resources, a continent of uninhabited land (indigenous people and Mexicans were swept away or swept aside early on) meaning free or cheap land, something unavailable and in fact unthinkable in already crowded Europe and Asia. Though our founding ideas were nothing at all new, and many a European exponent of Enlightenment ideas wished, and occasionally tried to import them to and adapt them in countries with long established systems of government, such a project was never feasible. Though the societies and governing systems of many European nations were suffused with, and altered by ideas derived from prominent figures of the European Enlightenment, it was unprecedented to be in possession of an entirely uninhabited continent in which to plant the seeds of those ideas, and to embark freely on a process of political, societal and economic experimentation. Switching metaphorical horses, the founding generation had a vast, blank, continental canvas upon which to paint.
So, America’s size and relative emptiness was its initial great fortune. Along those lines, the geographic isolation and insularity of the continent was no small potatoes either. Being largely out of the reach of invading armies, or at the very least, having the buffer of two oceans to prohibitively reduce the practicality, and the probability of success of any quest to conquer, was a luxury, and perhaps the definitive one.
It should be remembered, and it is conveniently unmentioned, that in the post World War Two era when America achieved a conspicuous economic superiority, the American economy had largely been left untouched by the devastation of the world war, while all of America’s European and Asian competitors had been laid to waste. Similarly, Europe destroyed itself with the First World, another episode of America blessed by Mother Nature rather than solely responsible for its own fortune.
Capitalism, an economic idea one could be excused for believing America alone asked for, and received from the Wizard of Oz, in fact is as old as antiquity, though the modern form was developed in 16th Century Holland and Britain, and imported to the United States. As this economic theory predated the United States, so did the Industrial Revolution. America’s initial economic vivacity was based largely upon the sale of slave-picked cotton to Great Britain, where it could be manufactured into exportable goods. America only slowly moved from this agricultural-based economy to the manufacturing brand already long existent in Europe.
As for our founders and framers, it is with deep 4th of July despondence that I report that the political ideas of Franklin, Paine, Madison and Jefferson were not at all original. They were heavily influenced by these ideas originated with the English Revolution and the English, the Scottish and the French Enlightenments, though to the founding generation’s credit, they were exceedingly wise in their influences, as well marvelously erudite. And, despite our high school history teachers’ best efforts, we now know the founders were far from saints, some of them not only owning slaves but taking them to bed on a regular basis. It’s difficult to find any credible or viable notion of consensual sex in that imbalance of power. The Puritan ancestors bemoaned the lack of religious tolerance and liberty in Mother England, and then proceeded to be the most religiously intolerant so and so’s one could imagine. And John Adams, brilliant and intellectually creative as he was, was a raging anti-Catholic bigot.
America in its history has not practiced any unique or singularly innovative capitalism, but rather the same kind in practice and successfully so elsewhere in the world. Though indeed we may be fabulous, it is again my sad duty to report that the Industrial Revolution began elsewhere; the internal combustion engine was invented in Germany; the radio by an Italian working in England; and that the initial work in nuclear energy was undertaken by physicists in England and Germany. This neither detracts from nor undermines the splendor of the American hot dog, but it is what it is I’m afraid.
Thinking of ourselves as special is more or less our literal inheritance. The Puritan Ideal declared us special and apart, a “city set on a hilltop,” from which Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan crafted the words for the Reagan speech reaffirming our exceptionalism, as a, “shining city on a Hill”. And indeed our feelings of specialness can be traced again to those Puritans and the early American Protestants, who felt a familial bond with the Chosen People of the Old Testament, arguably delusional, as potentially any supernatural justification is. But this perhaps, in some way explains our feeling of entitlement expressed in Manifest Destiny for our European ancestors to steamroll their way from sea to shining sea.
This sense of special mission surely girded our belief, or one might more accurately say rationalized the gunboat diplomacy, or clandestine intelligence operations through which we intervened in the affairs of other nations, or simply invaded. The consequences and repercussions of this messianic sense seem to manifest themselves with multiplicity each and every day. Messianism in the long run is generally not the healthiest of things, unless one in fact is the Messiah, though even he would freely admit no doubt to an unavoidable downside
What is unique to America, and had never been implemented before in all of history, was a system of government subject to its citizens’ own endorsement, and by design able to be, and intended to be entirely dismantled or replaced should a citizenry desire to do as such. Many English reformers advocated for such and sought to conceive such a Constitutionally sovereign citizenry over time in England, but were never successful. This is many, many a mile from the Right-Wing historical revisionism, utter ignorance and ideological numbnuttery insisting not only that our system is sacrosanct, but going so far as to assert that later amendments to the Constitution are in fact blasphemous to the sacredness of the rump document.
Not alone among the founders, but certainly notable, Jefferson was a born and practicing skeptic, and would not look kindly on, nor would he be at all amused by the reverential thinking about American history. Jefferson was an admirer of Socrates, and would have been appalled by the lack of, and by any fretfulness over the examination or questioning of the founding documents, and the founding assumptions.
My veneration for the Founders has much to do with their miraculous ability to balance grand philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment, with the messy realities of politics on the ground at the time in Colonial America, and with the mercurial quality of human nature. Their Enlightenment or even Athenian view that reason and rationality and learning should be elevated as a society’s highest guiding principles, while only an ideal, was a superior, even sublime one, and likewise, the opposite of ideology or cant.
While America’s charlatans on the right might hoist American mythology for their own unsavory and exploitative purposes, for me, the reality is often greatly more admirable than the myth is. The pseudo patriots may believe it useful to perpetuate the notion that the Constitution was a slice of perfection delivered by a burning bush. But the reality that the final form was the result of endless and meticulous disagreement, the slicing and dicing of countless clashing and overlapping parochial interests, and final compromise…at least as much realpolitik as grandly philosophical…is what to me is so commendable and worthy of our celebration.
Personally, I prefer reality to myth. Leaving aside those who advance the mythology for purely political and ideological purposes (I’m looking at you, right- wingers), some Americans prefer the mythology simply because it makes them feel better. Call me a freak (doing so isn’t virgin territory) but the reality is more comforting to me than the rule of the mythological any day.