THE REVOLUTION BEGAN on April 19, 1775, with, as Emerson put it in the mid-nineteenth century, a “shot heard round the world.” That, in fact, was how the nineteenth century saw the Revolution—as an event of worldwide significance. It was an event that opened up a new era in politics and society, not just for Americans but eventually for everyone in the world. It is a perspective on the American Revolution not always grasped, even by Americans, and it is the perspective of this essay.
It was “America’s destiny,” said the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth in 1852, “to become the cornerstone of Liberty on earth.” “Should the Republic of America ever lose this consciousness of this destiny,” Kossuth went on in a speech given while he was in the United States trying to raise money for the 1848 Hungarian revolution, “that moment would be just as surely the beginning of America’s decline as the 19th of April 1775 was the beginning of the Republic of America.”
I don’t know if that moment of decline is at hand or not, but in the aftermath of September 11 and our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are certainly at a significant moment in our history. We now dominate the world as no nation in history ever has. Our military expenditures are nearly equal to those of all the other nations in the world put together. We have over a million men and women under arms and we have troops in at least forty countries. This may not be an empire in the traditional meaning of that term, but it is an extraordinary degree of dominance over the world that we are exercising. Is this the fulfillment of our destiny, as Kossuth saw it, to build liberty everywhere? Or is it a repudiation of our destiny? Have we lost our consciousness of being the bearers of liberty? Have we become just another great imperial power? Did our invasion of Iraq in order to bring democracy to the Middle East mark the end of our Revolutionary tradition, or, instead, was it the fulfillment of it?
It is hard for many people to think of the United States as a revolutionary nation operating out of a revolutionary tradition. For the past six or seven decades or more the United States has so often stood on the side of established governments and opposed to revolutionary movements that to describe America as a revolutionary state seems to be an oxymoron. So reactionary did many intellectuals think American policy was during the Cold War that they could only conclude that our involvement in the world was due solely to American capitalism and its needs. Many people continue to believe that our involvement in the Middle East can be explained simply in terms of oil. No doubt such economic explanations can make sense of particular events at particular times, but they cannot do justice to the incredibly complicated and ideological relationship we have had with the rest of the world throughout our history. Economic considerations, for example, can never adequately explain America’s tragic involvement in Vietnam. But America’s revolutionary tradition can.
The Revolution is important to us Americans for many reasons, not least because it gave us our obsessive concern with our own morality and our messianic sense of purpose in the world. In short, the Revolution made us an ideological people.
We do not like to think of ourselves as an ideologically minded people. Ideology seems to have no place in American thinking. The word even sounds European. It conjures up systems of doctrinaire ideas and dogmatic, abstract theories. It could hardly have much to do with the practical, pragmatic people we Americans have generally thought ourselves to be. And certainly ideology, it used to be thought, could not have been involved in that most practical of revolutions—the American Revolution.
Few historians of the Revolution believe that anymore. It now seems clear that the Revolution was very much an ideological movement, involving a fundamental shift in ideas and values. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the American Revolution was as ideological as any revolution in modern Western history, and as a consequence, we Americans have been as ideological-minded as any people in Western culture.
Of course, we Americans have vaguely known all along that we are peculiarly dedicated to intellectual principles, and that adherence to these intellectual principles has been the major adhesive holding us together. We Americans do not have a nationality the way other peoples do. Our sense of being a distinct ethnicity was not something we could take for granted, the way most Europeans could—which of course is why we can absorb immigrants more easily than they can. A nation like ours, made up of so many races and ethnicities, could not assume its identity as a matter of course. The American nation had to be invented or contrived.
At the end of the Declaration of Independence, the members of the Continental Congress mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. There was nothing else but themselves they could dedicate themselves to—no patria, no fatherland, no nation as yet.
In comparison with the 235-year-old United States, many European states are new, some created in the twentieth century. Yet these European states, new as they may be, are undergirded by peoples who had a preexisting sense of their own distinctiveness, their own nationhood. In the United States, the process was reversed. We Americans created a state before we were a nation, and much of our history has been an effort to define the nature of that nationality. In an important sense, we have never been a nation in any traditional meaning of the term. It is the state, the Constitution, the principles of liberty, equality, and free government that make us think of ourselves as a single people. To be an American is not to be someone, but to believe in something.
What is the nature of this ideology created by the American Revolution? Looking back from our vantage point at the beginning of the twenty-first century, what strikes me as most extraordinary about the Revolution is the world-shattering significance the Revolutionaries gave to it. In light of the fact that we did eventually become the greatest power the world has ever seen, it requires an act of imagination to recover the audacity and presumptuousness of Americans in 1776 in claiming that their little colonial rebellion possessed universal importance. After all, those thirteen colonies made up an insignificant proportion of the Western world, numbering perhaps two million people, huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast, three thousand miles from the centers of civilization. To believe that anything they did would matter to the rest of the world was the height of arrogance. Yet the Revolutionaries and their heirs in the nineteenth century sincerely believed that they were leading the world toward a new libertarian future. Our conception of ourselves as the leader of the free world began in 1776.
What made this presumptuous attitude possible, what made Americans in 1776 think they were on the edge of a new era in history, pointing the way toward a new kind of politics and society and a new sort of world, what, in short, transformed their Revolution into something more than a colonial rebellion was the revolutionary ideology of republicanism.
It has been only in the past generation or so that we have come to understand just how ideologically charged with republicanism the eighteenth century was. (For the term “republicanism” we today have to substitute the word “democracy,” or we won’t understand what was meant in the eighteenth century. After all, the Chinese today live in a republic, as do the Syrians and the Cubans. And for monarchy we have to think of authoritarian governments, since a good proportion of the states of Western Europe are monarchies.) Where republicanism today is taken so much for granted and where much of the monarchy that remains seems so benign, it is difficult to appreciate the power republicanism had for eighteenth-century intellectuals. Indeed, republicanism was as radical for the eighteenth century as Marxism was for the nineteenth. Republicanism and the republican tradition framed for all sorts of political and social critics of eighteenth-century Europe the moral perspective with which they confronted the dominant monarchism and materialism of the age.
This republicanism was not an indigenous ideology peculiar only to Americans, but was in fact a product of a long-existing heritage of civic humanism, originating in the classical Latin literature of antiquity—with Livy, Cicero, Tacitus, Sallust, and others—revived by Machiavelli and others in the Renaissance and carried into the eighteenth century by nearly everyone who claimed to be enlightened. These republican values articulated most vociferously but not exclusively by the popularizers and heirs of the seventeenth-century republicans—Harrington, Milton, and Sidney—promised far more than the elimination of kings and new elective governments. Republicanism, in fact, promised an entirely new morality. It necessarily involved the character and culture of the society and thus possessed immense significance for any people who should decide to become republican.
Everyone in the eighteenth century knew that republicanism required a special kind of people, a people who possessed virtue, who were willing to surrender their private interests for the sake of the whole. As we have seen in the earlier essays in this collection, monarchy or authoritarian governments were so prevalent because they were based on the assumption that people were incapable of this kind of virtue. Monarchy presumed that people were selfish and corrupt and that without the existence of the strong, unitary authority of monarchy, the society would fall apart. Theorists of the eighteenth century like Montesquieu would have understood perfectly what happened in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia in the 1990s when a strong unitary authority was removed. They would have understood too why the states of Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere are having such trouble sustaining themselves. People assert their various selfish ethnicities, religions, and interests, and the society cannot hold together and falls apart. Montesquieu would have said that the people of these states lacked sufficient virtue to hold their societies together.
Monarchies thus had advantages that republics lacked, which is why they have existed everywhere since the beginning of history and why authoritarian governments still flourish around the world. Monarchies were utterly realistic or cynical about human nature. Supporters of monarchy did not expect humans to be anything but corrupt and selfish. Authoritarian kings possessed a number of means for holding their diverse and corrupt societies together. Monarchies had powerful single executives, a multitude of offices, complicated social hierarchies, titles of honor, standing armies, and established churches to maintain cohesion.
But republics possessed few of the adhesive attributes of monarchies. Therefore, order, if there were to be any in republics, would have to come from below, from the virtue or selflessness of the people themselves. Yet precisely because republics were so utterly dependent on the people, they were also the states most sensitive to changes in the moral character of their societies. In short, republics were the most delicate and fragile kinds of states. There was nothing but the moral quality of the people themselves to keep republics from being torn apart by factionalism and division. Republics were thus the states most likely to experience political death.
To the eighteenth century the decay and death of states seemed as scientifically grounded as the decay and death of human beings. “It is with states as it is with men” was a commonplace of the day. “They have their infancy, their manhood, and their decline.” The study of the life cycle of states, focusing on political disease, was of central concern to the Enlightenment, for through such political pathology, people could further their knowledge of political health and prevent the process of decay. With these kinds of concerns, the whole world, including the past, became a kind of laboratory in which the sifting and evaluating of empirical evidence would lead to an understanding of social sickness and health. Political science became a kind of diagnostics, and history became an autopsy of the past. Those states that had died would be cut open, so to speak, and examined in order to discover why they had died.
Of course, the most important states that had died were the republics of antiquity, especially the ancient republic of Rome. The death of Rome fascinated eighteenth-century thinkers. Almost every intellectual, including Montesquieu, tried his hand at writing about the decline and fall of Rome. Reading the great Latin writers of antiquity, the eighteenth century came to realize that the Roman republic became great not simply by the force of its arms; nor was it destroyed by military might. Both Rome’s greatness and its eventual fall were caused by the character of its people. As long as the Roman people maintained their love of virtue, their simplicity and equality, their scorn of great distinctions, and their willingness to fight for the state, they attained great heights of glory. But when they became too luxury-loving, too obsessed with refinements and social distinctions, too preoccupied with money, and too effeminate to take up arms on behalf of the state, their politics became corrupted, selfishness predominated, and the dissolution of the state had to follow. Rome fell not because of the invasions of the barbarians from without, but because of decay from within.
The lesson for the Revolutionaries in 1776 was obvious. If their experiment in republicanism were to succeed, the American people had to avoid the luxury and corruption that had destroyed ancient Rome. They had to be a morally virtuous people.
Americans had good reason to believe that they were ideally adapted for republican government. Most of them, at least the white portion, were independent yeoman farmers, Jefferson’s “chosen people of God,” who were widely regarded as the most incorruptible sorts of citizens and the best foundation for a republic. There were no titled aristocrats in America and none of the legal distinctions and privileges that encumbered the European states. All in all, Americans in 1776 thought they were the special kind of simple, austere, egalitarian, and virtuous people that enlightened social science said was essential for the sustenance of a republic. Their moral quality thus became a measure of their success as a society, and this inevitably gave their new Republic an experimental and problematical character.
The Americans thus began their Revolution in a spirit of high adventure. They knew they were embarking on a grand experiment in self-government. That experiment remained very much in doubt during the first half of the nineteenth century, especially during the Civil War, when monarchy still dominated all of Europe. Hence we can understand the importance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he described the Civil War as a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty could long endure. This idea that republican government was a perilous experiment was part of America’s consciousness from the beginning.
All of this republican ideology assumed tremendous moral force. When fused with Protestant millennialism, it gave Americans the sense that they were chosen people of God, possessing peculiar qualities of virtue, with a special responsibility to lead the world toward liberty and republican government.
Americans began their experiment in republicanism with very high hopes that other peoples would follow their lead in throwing off monarchy. But they also knew that it wouldn’t be easy, since republicanism required a particular moral quality in its people. Naturally, at first they saw the French Revolution as a copy of their own Revolution, and they welcomed the effort. Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to Washington in gratitude for America’s having inspired the French Revolution. But its rapid perversion and excesses, ending in Napoleonic despotism, disillusioned many Americans about the ability of Europeans to emulate them in becoming republican. They came to see the French Revolution as simply an abortive attempt to imitate the successful American effort at establishing republicanism. Far from changing things for the better in Europe, the French Revolution had failed. And thus the Americans’ optimism about the future was tempered by doubts.
These doubts soon played into American attitudes toward the Latin American colonial rebellions that broke out in the early decades of the nineteenth century. If any revolutions were emulations of the American Revolution, these certainly seemed to be. And, of course, Americans like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson welcomed them. But at the same time they were skeptical of the South Americans’ ability to create free republican governments. Did they have the stuff, the virtue, that republicans were made of? “I feared from the beginning,” wrote Jefferson in 1821, “that these people were not as yet sufficiently enlightened for self-government; and that after wading through blood and slaughter, they would end in military tyrannies, more or less numerous. Yet as they wished to try the experiment [in republicanism], I wish them success in it.”
Thus Americans from the outset had an ambiguous attitude toward republican revolutions in other parts of the world. Naturally there was no hostility, only sympathy and enthusiasm mixed with some skepticism, a well-wishing mingled with a kind of patronizing pessimism bred of an anxiety that other peoples would not have the sort of social and moral qualities necessary to carry through a successful republican revolution. Nevertheless, Americans continued to believe that they, and not the French, were the revolutionary nation par excellence.
And some Europeans agreed with them. Count Metternich, the chief minister of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, excoriated the United States for proclaiming in 1823 the Monroe Doctrine, which told the Europeans that they no longer had any role to play in the New World:
In their indecent declarations [these United States] have cast blame and scorn on the institutions of Europe most worthy of respect. . .. In permitting themselves these unprovoked attacks, in fostering revolutions wherever they show themselves, in regretting those which have failed, in extending a helping hand to those which seem to prosper, they lend new strength to the apostles of sedition and re-animate the courage of every conspirator. If this flood of evil doctrines and pernicious examples should extend over the whole of America, what would become of our religious and political institutions, of the moral forces of our governments, and of the conservative system which has saved Europe from complete dissolution?
Despite promising not to intervene in Europe’s internal affairs and expressing a desire to have no entangling alliances with Europe, most Americans remained very concerned with what went on there. Yet they were reluctant to get directly involved in any revolutionary ventures that might endanger their own republican experiment. Believing that people who were ready for republicanism would sooner or later become republicans as they had, Americans in the nineteenth century concluded that they could best accomplish their mission of bringing free governments to the rest of the world simply by existing as a free government, by being an exemplar to the world.
William Wirt of Virginia put this very nicely in a speech in Baltimore in 1830. “We stand under a fearful responsibility to our Creator and our fellow citizens,” Wirt told his audience. “It has been his divine pleasure that we should be sent forth as the harbinger of free government on the earth, and in this attitude we are now before the world. The eyes of the world are upon us; and our example will probably be decisive of the cause of human liberty.”
So Americans watched and encouraged all the nineteenth-century revolutions. They did not intervene in deed, but they did in every other way. Individuals raised money for the rebels and some went off to fight on behalf of revolutionary movements. In all the European revolutions of the century—the Greek revolt of 1821, the French constitutional transformation of 1830, the general European insurrections of 1848, and the overthrow of the Second French Empire and the establishment of the Third French Republic in 1870—the United States was usually the first state in the world to extend diplomatic recognition to the new revolutionary regimes.
After all, in the Americans’ eyes these European revolutions were simply efforts by oppressed peoples to become like them, all species of the same revolutionary genus American us. Americans never felt threatened by these revolutions and had no fear whatsoever of the spread of revolutionary ideas. There was, of course, one exception to this enthusiasm for revolution: the Haitian revolution that created in 1804 the second republic in the New World. We did not recognize the Haitian republic until Lincoln’s administration. But we welcomed all the others and toasted those revolutionary patriots like Kossuth when they came to America in search of money and support.
Naturally, this encouragement of revolution did not endear us to the European monarchies. But nineteenth-century Americans in their geographical separation simply did not care. We were proud of our revolutionary example and simply assumed that we were the cause of all the revolutionary upheavals in nineteenth-century Europe. When the Hapsburg monarchy protested American sympathy with the Hungarian revolution of 1848, Secretary of State Daniel Webster did not resort to any traditional polite diplomatic evasion. Quite the contrary—he claimed nothing less than full American responsibility for the upheavals. He told the Austrian Hungarian minister in Washington “that the prevalence on the other continent of sentiments favorable to republican liberty is the result of the reaction of America upon Europe; and the source and center of that reaction has doubtless been, and now is, in these United States.” Webster then went on to add, in one of those gratuitous insults for which American diplomatic messages in the nineteenth century were famous, that in comparison with the great extent of the United States, the Hapsburg monarchy was “but a patch on the earth’s surface.”
Because nineteenth-century Americans frequently resorted to such spread-eagled bombast but actually did very little to aid the revolutions, many historians have concluded that America’s revolutionary sympathy was something of a fraud. But I think such a conclusion misunderstands the peculiar character of America’s nineteenth-century revolutionary tradition. Because of their republican assumptions, Americans believed that any revolution in Europe would have to come from the oppressed peoples themselves and from the moral force of America’s example as a republic.
But they never had any doubt that America was the center of the international revolution. This American ethnocentricity is mind-boggling. The best example I know of is a message from President Grant to the French government sent in response to the French overthrow of the Second Empire and the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870. Despite America’s determination not to intervene in Europe’s affairs, President Grant told the French, “We cannot be indifferent to the spread of American political ideas in a great and civilized country like France.” It was as if France had no revolutionary tradition of its own to call on. One wonders what the officials at the French foreign office thought of this extraordinary message.
Because of the slowness with which republicanism spread, however, nineteenth-century Americans increasingly concluded that they were destined to be the only successful republican state in a corrupt world. Millions of people in the world seemed to think so too. The migration to the United States between 1820 and 1920 of over thirty-five million refugees from monarchism gave the Americans’ conception of themselves as a chosen people a less divine and more literal meaning and confirmed for them their preeminence as a revolutionary people.
It is within this nineteenth-century context, this revolutionary tradition of republicanism, and this belief of Americans that they were in the vanguard of history leading the world toward liberty that we can begin to comprehend the extraordinary American reaction to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the full sweep of American history up to that time, no foreign event had such a dramatic and searing effect on Americans as did the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917. After that momentous event, our understanding of ourselves and the world became very confused.
At first, with the March 1917 overthrow of the tsar and the formation of the provisional government, Americans welcomed the Russian Revolution as they had welcomed earlier antimonarchical European revolutions. Seven days after the tsar abdicated, the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the new Russian government, the first power in the world to do so. President Wilson now thought he had “a fit partner for a league of honor,” a league which Wilson hoped would be a means for the worldwide extension of republicanism. In May 1917 the American ambassador in Moscow wrote back to the United States that he expected Russia to come out of its ordeal “as a republic, and with a government . . . founded on correct principles”—that is to say, principles similar to those of the American Republic.
Yet with the Bolshevik takeover of the revolution in the fall of 1917, all this initial American enthusiasm quickly disappeared. Instead of the Russian Revolution’s firmest friend, the United States suddenly became its most bitter enemy. Instead of quickly extending diplomatic recognition to the new republican regime, as American governments had traditionally done throughout the nineteenth century, the United States withheld diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union for sixteen years and four American presidencies, making the United States not the first but the last major Western power to recognize the revolutionary regime.
In light of America’s earlier revolutionary tradition, this was a remarkable turnabout—a turnabout, however, that is explicable only in terms of that earlier revolutionary tradition. What was now different, what caused this abrupt change of attitude, was the nature of the Bolshevik appeal, the new character of the communist ideology. The Russian Revolution was not another species of the revolutionary genus Americanus; it was a new revolutionary genus altogether. The Bolsheviks claimed not simply to be leading another antimonarchical republican revolution in emulation of the American or French models of the late eighteenth century. The Bolsheviks said that their communist revolution represented a totally new departure in world history. Others saw what this meant. The Swiss playwright and essayist Herman Kesser said in 1918 that “it is [now] certain that mankind must make up its mind either for Wilson or for Lenin.”
The great antagonism that immediately sprang up between the United States and the Soviet Union rested not simply on the exigencies of power politics, or the circumstances of contrasting marketing systems, but, more important, on the competitiveness of two very different revolutionary traditions. The Cold War really began in 1917. The Soviet Union threatened nothing less than the displacement of the United States from the vanguard of history. The Russians, not the Americans, now claimed to be pointing the way toward the future (and, more alarming still, there were some American intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s who agreed with that claim).
For the first time since 1776, Americans were faced with an alternative revolutionary ideology with universalist aspirations equal to their own. This ideological threat was far more serious to us than anything the Russians did technologically, either in developing the H-bomb or in launching Sputnik. For it seemed to make America’s heritage irrelevant. If we Americans were not leading the world toward liberty and free government, what then was our history all about?
With this dramatic emergence of an opposing revolutionary ideology, Americans in the twentieth century grew more and more confused about themselves and their place in history. They could not very well stand against the idea of revolution, but at the same time they could no longer be very enthusiastic about revolutions that they assumed would be communist. With the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the United States for the first time in its history committed itself to supporting established governments of “free peoples” against the threat from subversion from “armed minorities”—presumably communist—within the state. Our Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union eventually culminated in our disastrous intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s. Most Americans thought they were simply following President Kennedy’s call in 1961 to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Only this time, support for liberty meant supporting an existing government against revolution.
The fundamental threat to the meaning of our history posed by a rival revolutionary ideology blinded us to the nationalistic and other ethnocultural forces at work in the world. In such an atmosphere it became difficult for us not to believe that every revolution was in some way communist, and consequently our definition of “free” governments was stretched to extraordinary lengths to cover eventually any government that was noncommunist. The ironies, of course, are abundant: we Americans spent ten years between 1979 and 1989 helping the Taliban in Afghanistan withstand a Soviet takeover.
It would be a mistake, however, to see our support of corrupt or reactionary regimes as the direct response of American capitalism or as the result of some deep-rooted abhorrence of revolution. Many of our Cold War actions, clumsy and misguided as they often may have been, represented our confused and sometimes desperate efforts to maintain our universalist revolutionary aspirations in the world.
Our Point Four Program accompanied the Truman Doctrine; the Peace Corps coincided with our involvement in Vietnam. All were linked; all were cut from the same ideological cloth; all were expressions of what was becoming an increasingly dimly perceived sense of America’s revolutionary mission in the world.
Suddenly, in 1989, this all changed. The Soviet Union collapsed; with it, its revolutionary aspirations to make the world over as communist collapsed as well. Joel Barr, an American engineer who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1950, told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1992 that he had been wrong about communism. “I believe that now history will show that the Russian Revolution was a tremendous mistake. It was a step backward,” he said. “The real revolution for mankind that will go down for many, many years was the American Revolution.”
We’re living at an extraordinary moment in our history. It is not at all clear what the consequences of the momentous events we’re living through will be. At first September 11 Seemed to have increased, not weakened, our desire to dominate the world. President George W. Bush came into office opposed to nation building. Then he became determined to do just that in Iraq. Lots of intelligent Americans, like Tom Friedman of the New York Times and the editors of the New Republic, initially welcomed the idea of bringing democracy to the Middle East. But after a long, frustrating struggle, we are now merely hoping against hope that as we get out of Iraq, it will become perhaps not a democracy but at least a functioning state. In Afghanistan we don’t even talk about democracy. All we can hope for there is the establishment of a reasonably stable state capable of resisting the Taliban, or perhaps not even that—just a state capable of resisting Al Qaida. These Middle East wars seem to have drained away most of our idealism about changing the world. Yet what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is reviving the hope of democracy re-emerging in the region, however tenuously.
We seem to be very much an all-or-nothing people. It is very difficult for us to maintain a realpolitik attitude toward the world. We have to be either saving the world or shunning it. In the 1990s some intellectuals were bitterly opposed to any of the messianic impulses coming out of our revolutionary tradition. Some, including Irving Kristol, thought that we had become a middle-aged nation not all that different from the nations of Europe. But still others, such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, contended that we were still the indispensable nation. Now, at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we seem to be in a quandary about what to do, about what our role in the world ought to be. We remain the sole superpower but still unsure of quite how to use that power.
What the future will be is impossible to tell. All we can do with our history is to remember that the United States has always been to ourselves and to the world primarily an idea. However many troops we can muster around the world will mean little if, in using them, we erode that idea, that moral authority which is the real source of our strength and our ability to gain the admiration and support of other peoples.
Our revolutionary heritage still commands the attention of many people in the world—our devotion to liberty and equality, our abhorrence of privilege, our fear of abused political power, our faith in constitutionalism and individual liberties. This was brought home to me over three decades ago at a talk I gave in Warsaw in 1976—during the bicentennial of the American Revolution. It was an incident that I will never forget. It was well before the end of the Cold War, even several years before the emergence of Solidarity, the movement in 1980 that was the beginning of the end of communism in Poland.
At the end of my very ordinary lecture on the American Revolution, a young Polish intellectual rose to tell me that I had left out the most important part. Naturally, I was stunned. She said I had not mentioned the Bill of Rights—the constitutional protection of individual liberties against the government. It was true. I had taken the Bill of Rights for granted. But this young Polish woman living under a communist regime could not take individual rights for granted.
We forget—we take for granted—the important things. This example of the Polish intellectual showed me that our republic was still a potent experiment in liberty worth demonstrating to the rest of the world. We can only hope that that idea of America will never die.