Of Unfinished Revolutions and Ongoing Evolution
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Tomorrow is a day, of course, when we reflect more on the greatness and less on the faults.
But if de Tocqueville was right, it may difficult to disentangle one from the other. And we might be better for this. The poet and scientist Lewis Thomas once observed (in a very different context) that, “the capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.”
Perhaps this insight about biology is applicable to our body politic. If so, our capacity as a nation to blunder slightly — or more than slightly, but still in a way that is reversible — and then stitch our collective civic genome back together, may well be our saving grace. Without that special attribute, we would likely never have achieved the eminence that gives rise to American exceptionalism and all of the providential mythology that we often choose to view as the unseen hand guiding our history.
Evolutionary biologists theorize that RNA (another component of our genetic code) isn’t actually human. It likely began as an invasive pathogen — perhaps a virus — that fought its way into the cells of our ancestors, found a way to make itself useful, and was thus assimilated into our beings in a way that was worth passing down to subsequent generations. What had been invasive and foreign became native.
Can this analogy also be extended from a cell to a sovereign nation? In 1776, we became only the second country in history of the world to incorporate the word “united” into its name. And we did it for the same reason as the first (the United Kingdom of Great Britain, 69 years earlier): we trying reassure ourselves about something we hoped would turn out to be true, but weren’t entirely sure about.
For the British, imagining themselves to be a single people, including the Scots, the Welsh, and (later) the Irish, was itself a staggering leap. But for the first generation of Americans, lacking shared history or ethnicity, the challenge was greater. The sole unifying precept they could claim was what later came to be called the American Idea — summarized by John Quincy Adams on the 45th Independence Day in this way: “the only legitimate foundation of civil government [is] the unalienable sovereignty of the people.” Embrace this, the founders in effect said, and you are one of us.
By this embrace, each of us (with the unconscionable exception of Native Americans) was transfigured — either in our own lifetimes, or those of our forebears — from alien to American, from something invasive to indigenous.
Thanks to this alchemy, we have mostly managed (for 243 years) to live up to our billing as “united.” We have achieved — more or less — the aspiration summed up by the Latin motto that the founders selected for the nation they had founded, which translates as, “out of many, one.” (They lifted this, by the way, from a popular journal of the time, Gentleman’s Magazine, which used the phrase as reference to the fact that it reprinted articles from a wide variety of sources.)
But old habits die hard, and atavism appears also to be hard-wired into our genetic code. So we periodically revert to schisms based on race or region, class or creed, and seek to eclipse one another. Lord Acton once reflected that, “the danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.” But also predicted that, “the law of liberty tends to abolish the reign of race over race, of faith over faith, of class over class.”
Admittedly, we’re still working on that part, but the Fourth of July is a day better than most to refocus on that work. An occasion when we momentarily transcend tribe and community and all of the outward markers of identity and consider ourselves simply… Americans.
De Tocqueville also observed that, “in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” But unfinished stories, as well as unfinished revolutions, retain the capacity to surprise and inspire and uplift. Here’s looking forward to more of all three.
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