Lessons from the American Revolution – learned and unlearned

Fireworks display in Raymore, Missouri (credit: jeff_golden/Flickr Creative Commons)

Happy Birthday America!

“[T]hese truths are self-evident…all men are created equal…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…among these…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…Governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed…”

That’s our democracy, challenging the English monarchy with a new concept of equality for all.

john burbank

John Burbank, Executive Director

We continue to live the American experiment of  equality, democracy, work, family, and the pursuit of happiness.  Our history is layered with hope, progress, prosperity, individual aspiration and exertion, education for all, battles for fair compensation and working conditions, economic dynamism and common interests. And it is littered with imperfection, slavery, privilege, desecration of native cultures, greed, civil war, and economic depression.

We are not perfect – we are simply Americans, building a two-century tradition of democracy, public services, and free enterprise. Consider the progress we have made so far:

  • From slaves and slave-holders (and Jim Crow laws less than 50 years ago), to President Obama.
  • From women as second-class citizens, with no vote and under the household control of their husbands, to Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell, and Governor Gregoire.
  • From fear of old age, sickness, and poverty, to the certainty of health care and economic security through Medicare and Social Security.
  • From a few villages surrounded by wilderness to a country crisscrossed with interstate highways connecting vibrant cities and rural farms, spreading prosperity from the Palouse to Puget Sound, and far beyond.

None of this would have been possible without our government. And none of it will remain possible without our government. The question is, what kind of government do we desire? Here’s what the Founders declared:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”

Those ideas are the modern manifestations of the paramount values we inherited from the founders – in fact, they laid the groundwork for many of the fundamentals of life today, including health care, economic security, and educational opportunity.

But the American Revolution was also a revolt against aristocracy. Americans in the 13 colonies were far more equal to each other in income, than the English across the ocean. As Thomas Jefferson reflected:

“(w)e have no paupers. The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich…being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich ….such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families…..

The wealthy, on the other hand, ……know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury. They have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life than those who furnish them…. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?” Jefferson calculated that the overall happiness of Americans far outweighed that of the English, for whom “happiness is the lot of the aristocracy only.”

This is one area in which we have gone backwards from the dreams of the founders.  The income of the top 1% has grown so much in the past thirty years that this privileged slice of Americans take 20% of the country’s income.  That’s two and a half times more than the top 1% of Americans gained in the 1770’s and even more the 17% that English aristocrats took 240 years ago.

It is not just money the 1% control, it is their influence over politics, the media, and education – the fundamentals of democracy.   The Founders would be none too pleased to see how we’ve allowed money to infect the American experiment.

And yet, America’s promise still draws people from all over the world to live, work, prosper, and become Americans. It’s been that way from the beginning. In fact, the Declaration of Independence included this specific complaint against the King: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States…obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners…[and] refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither….” That’s right, the Founders believed the prosperity of our nation depended on new immigrants.

At the Seattle Center today over 500 immigrants from 80 countries will take their oath of citizenship, joining all of us Americans as full citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. And they, more than most of us, know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are not just words on paper, but a calling to themselves and to all Americans.

Happy Fourth of July!

[reprinted with permission from the Everett Herald]

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Posted in Column, EOI

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