America was called into being not with mere cannon fire or musket shots but with ideas, with words that inspired yeomen farmers and small shopkeepers to throw off the physical and mental yoke of empire.
Thomas Jefferson offered some of the finest words, in a Declaration of Independence that proposed the radical notion “that all men are created equal.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls Convention would extend the Jeffersonian promise by opening their Declaration of Sentiments with the line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would further bend the arc of history with his declaration: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
But the truest imagining of the American prospect came not from Jefferson but from the writer who the third president said did “with [his] pen what in other times was done with the sword.”
Thomas Paine electrified the colonies with a call to action that promised much more than mere independence from the British crown. Much more, even, than basic liberty or cherished freedoms.
Paine promised that a United States, founded in revolution against the British Crown, could become the city on a hill that would inspire all the peoples of all the world to reject the brutish repressions of empire, to throw off the barbarous hands of prejudice and superstition, to usher in an age of reason and justice.
“We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth,” wrote Paine in the seminal work of the American experiment, Common Sense. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.”
It is not merely good but indeed necessary to remember, on this and every New Year’s Day, that we still have it in our power to begin the world over again.
In the midst of the absurd “fiscal cliff” debate, it is easy to imagine an American experiment so decayed that it is incapable of getting anything done. Or, at the very least, incapable of getting anything done right.
But politicians, be they honorable leaders or disreputable scoundrels, do not make or break great nations.