The American Experiment

Oct 8, 2023
In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past. – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835 (Reeves translation)

We take it for granted today, but the United States was an experiment. It was a hypothesis on democratic republics and self-governance. It drew on the history of republics that came before – Athens, Rome, Venice, but none had ever combined the elements the founders envisioned. It drew on the philosophy of the Enlightenment thinkers of the time -- Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Hobbes, Montesquieu, but there was no evidence that theory would translate to practice.

11 years after the Declaration of Independence, the United States was barely functional. The Articles of Confederation were insufficient to govern. The Constitution redesigned the entire system. John Adams thought the government would inevitably succumb to monarchy.

There was a deep cognitive dissonance between the principles that the founders wrote and what they practiced (“all men are created equal”). It nearly made the entire experiment fail. The Civil War broke out 85 years after independence was declared.

247 years in, the experiment is still running. Some parts have been so successful that we take their results for granted. Others are still a work-in-progress. The founders didn’t know if the experiment would work and likely could not comprehend the results so far. In fact, the odds were stacked against them, and the consequences of a failed experiment were ultimate (“Give me liberty, or give me death” – Patrick Henry). It would have been easy to institute another monarchy or copy an existing government verbatim. Or to let the states become sovereign themselves without a federal government. Instead, the founders decided to run the greatest experiment of all time.

The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness. – George Washington