Friday, February 7, 2014

Our American Heritage

The colonists did not only revolt against taxes; they revolted to stop the British from taking away the self-governance they already had been exercising since the earliest colonization. The crown appointed governors for the colonies, but over three thousand miles of ocean in the day of wind-powered ships gave ordinary Americans more freedom than a minor noble living in Bristol, England. (Connecticut and Rhode Island even elected their own governors.) Americans bristled over dictates from Parliament because colonial legislatures had been exercising substantial power for well over a century.
Preserve and Protect
Plymouth Plantation Today

Even before they created a unique republic, Americans were a different breed than their European cousins. Pioneers who ventured far from home across a dangerous ocean were, by nature, adventurous and ambitious. Unhampered by close government scrutiny and blessed with abundant resources and relatively free markets, raw energy and ambition drove astonishing growth. Best of all, nobility did not have the sole claim to created wealth. Everyone, independent of station, could participate in any enterprise they chose and own the fruits of their labor or wits.

Thus was born the American Dream.

The American colonists were wealthy in comparison to most of the world. Meat, a rarity for the lower classes elsewhere, was cheap and plentiful. Land was available to anyone with industry enough to buy it or the gumption to venture westward to stake a claim. Colonial trade flourished along the Atlantic coasts of three continents and with the Caribbean islands, encouraging New England to create one of the greatest shipbuilding and maritime industries in the world.

Americans were well fed, well housed, and especially well educated—perhaps the best educated people in the world. Benjamin Franklin said, “We are more thoroughly an enlightened people, with respect to our political interests, than perhaps any other under heaven. Every man among us reads, and is so easy in his circumstances as to have leisure for conversations of improvement and for acquiring information.” And John Adams wrote, “A native of America who cannot read or write is…as rare as a comet or an earthquake.”

Preserve and Protect
Yale University

Opportunities for education were abundant in cities and towns, and colonists had established a culture of lifelong study. Most homes had at least a Bible and almanac in an era when books were expensive luxuries. Dartmouth, Harvard, Rhode Island College (later Brown University), Yale, King’s College (later Columbia), the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), Queen’s College (Later Rutgers), and William and Mary were all thriving institutions of higher education. Not just college graduates, but many of the self-educated had read Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Blackstone, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the classics of ancient Greece and Rome.

Was the American Dream open to all? Sadly, no. It’s not possible to ignore slavery. Slavery is part of our heritage, and it deserves a candid assessment. However, judging the late eighteenth century from today’s perspectives does not permit us to dismiss all of their work. Focusing on the faults of early Americans misses the entire point of the founding. The United States was founded on solid, idealistic principles, but at the time these principles were largely aspirational. The Founders bequeathed to us a republican form of government dedicated to individual liberty. Through Constitutional amendments, we have strived to expand liberty to one and all. While the effort was sometimes tumultuous, it was through the rule of law that liberty expanded.

Our inherited culture encourages us to extend the American Dream to everyone. We may occasionally forget the Founding Principles and misstep, but we invariably return to the path set out by our Founders. This makes Americans very different from the rest of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment