written by H. Michael Hartoonian
The United States is a jewel of history, not because of its landscape or people, but because it is fundamentally a set of ideas. There was a time in the late 18th Century when geography and thought came together to establish a working experiment in self-government. That government was created out of ideas taken from thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Cicero, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson restated and proclaimed those ideas in a Declaration of Independence for the United States of America. This was unique in history. That is, Americans making the claim that it was, perhaps, possible for people to be responsible enough to govern themselves.
This American Revolution was a break in the timeline of history. History is never a straight line—neither an uphill evolution toward utopia or downhill slide into dystopia. It is, rather, a series of events broken from time to time by a revolution in thought and action that sets into motion a new direction in a people’s existence. In1776 such a revolution took place. The history of the colonies and of the United States would never be the same. History would now take a different direction, guided by a new set of principles and a different set of arguments.
The American experiment, however, was not, and never will be completely veritable to its democratic values. So, again and again we have broken the line of history, attempting to move ever closer to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream,” which he asserted was deeply rooted in the American Dream, so exquisitely stated by Jefferson and used as a touchstone to the democratic values of our first revolution. Abraham Lincoln reclaims the same values in his Gettysburg Address, asking for a new birth of freedom and tying his argument to The Declaration of Independence – “For score and seven years ago” – 1776.
There have been other times when we broke the path of history because, as a people, we seemed to have lost our way and identity in the fog of relevancy and selfishness. Values like materialism, celebrity, sexuality, athleticism, and strength simply drove ideas like justice, beauty, responsibility, freedom, civility, and community out of favor. Lacking these principles, we engaged in a Civic War, confirmed Jim Crow, civically and physically abused women, and disrespected our people, our cities and our environment.
We are, today, at a point in history when a new revolution is in order. The need is clear and present – our fundamental democratic values seem to lack political and ethical support. From the way we finance elections to the way we pay for the education of our children; from the power of social media to the timidity of the press; and from the inequality of wealth to the inequality of military service, we are perceptually moving away from our fundamental values. It is time for another break in our historical direction. It is time for a new American Revolution, where, as a nation, we can argue in civility, and reflection again on our value tensions and think anew of why and how we can embed the deeper principles of democracy into the new contexts of the 21st Century.