It was a gloomy Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., overcast and chilly, with a desultory rain that spoiled plenty of fireworks shows. Maybe that’s why yesterday, over brunch at a restaurant in Northern Virginia, I found myself reflecting on just how fleeting all this might be. It was a slightly melodramatic thought—losing independence on traditionally upbeat Independence Day—but there I was mulling it over, and I wasn’t the first to do so.
Our founding fathers were never confident the American experiment would endure. James Madison estimated our longevity at 100 years; Adams gave us 150. That wasn’t to cast aspersions on the American people; it was a realistic acknowledgment of history. Before their time, every society in the history of the world had been ruled by some men at the expense of others, and even their newfound country, many of the founders knew, would eventually be forced to make compatible its ideals with the horrors of black subjugation. “Certain inalienable rights”—how could this survive the tidal force of history, of human nature, tugging us always back to the future?
Even worse, in most of their lifetimes the founders were confronted with a demonic mirror image of their project. The French Revolution, which tempted Jefferson and consumed Paine, was waged on the basis of values that sounded very similar to their own—liberty, equality, fraternity—yet it spilled a bloodbath that ultimately drowned France and ended with the military dictatorship of Napoleon. The French had been inspired by our example and had won only madness—think of the prison slaughters during September 1792 or Dickens’ crazed revolutionaries dancing the Carmagnole.
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss” was Dickens’ final judgment on the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. We managed to build our city on the hill without first plunging into the darkness—an evolutionary revolution. Ours was a struggle of philosophers and thinkers to preserve the relative license that the colonists had enjoyed before Parliament clamped down; theirs was a bum rush at everything—their traditions, their calendar, their church—in the hope of destroying it all and beginning anew. Our revolution was fought for values whose time had come on a continent ideally suited for their realization. It manifested our way of life rather than torching it.
Our way succeeded, but that in no way meant it was invulnerable. “A republic, if you can keep it” was how Benjamin Franklin described the American project, fully cognizant of the enormous responsibilities he was entrusting to future generations. The Founders’ progeny would have to guarantee liberty against both the ambitions of government and the leer of the mob, changing backwards whenever those impulses won out. But they also couldn’t change too quickly, lest that lurch empower government and risk a social rupture. Our revolution has always been a synthesis of conservative and radical, reaching backwards in order to preserve ideas that shook the underpinnings of the world. It’s a delicate balance and one that runs counter to the impulses of most political reformers.
We’ve lost that balance in many respects, yet we’ve also endured. We’ve lasted longer than any of the Founders anticipated, and we continue to beacon the rest of the world today. Still, it’s alarming how many Americans seem to think liberty is a permanent state of being, an inheritance we can never forsake, no matter how tight the EPA squeezes or how many speech codes we enact. The truth is that the entire American experiment is a vacation from history—not in the way neoconservatives wield the term, but in its immunity to the historical forces that should have consumed us long ago. We keep extending our time off, against all odds, yet that by no means guarantees it will continue. “A republic if you can keep it” indeed.
Today, the two major-party candidates for president represent two of the political strains our Founders feared most. Hillary Clinton is the ambitious government fixture and power centralizer that haunted Jefferson’s thought; Donald Trump is a grotesque of the mountebank that made Hamilton compare the masses to asses. Any patient commitment to liberty has fallen into the chasm between the two. Losing the republic, even if it’s only gradually, brick by brick, is always easier than keeping it.