THE MEANING OF AMERICA – America Was Meant to be Different
Part three of a four part series by Avery Slom for the ASPL blog
I don’t think there is any one, single reason the U.S. ended up as arguably the most influential nation on Earth by the end of the 20th century. Geographic location, climate, natural resources, the devastation other nations suffered from the two world wars, and several other things all play a part, but the biggest reason America was and, to some extent, still is different from many other places goes back to the founding of the nation. The United States is different because it was meant to be different.
The men, collectively known as the founding fathers, who created the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were intelligent and educated. They knew history and were well acquainted with the works of Enlightenment thinkers. They took note of their ideas and incorporated several of them into the design of what would become the new United States.* The result was a new form of government, one that they were not entirely sure could survive. It was, quite literally, revolutionary.
Unlike most European nations of the time, they envisioned a new country without a king. No one would have a divine right to rule. The people would not be subjects; they would be free men, and the ruler and lawmakers would be subject to their consent and approval. There would be no hereditary nobility or fixed social classes. The same laws would apply to everyone, and all men would have the same opportunities, capable, at least in principle, of being able to accomplish whatever they could through their own efforts rather than by right of birth. There would be no state religion. Everyone, regardless of his individual beliefs, would have the same rights and was due the same respect. (I use the male pronoun because gender equality was still over a century away. We should not let this detract us from our appreciation of what was, for the time, a remarkable achievement.)
We were, in large part, a nation of immigrants, and Constitutional amendments and the laws that followed codified rules so that anyone could become an American through naturalization. Being born here wasn’t a requirement. There were also provisions to add new states, so that other places could ask to join us if they wished. We began with thirteen. Now we are fifty. Anyone could be American. Any place could be American. We had a dream for a new kind of nation, and we wanted to share it. ‘Come, join us,’ we said.
The idea that defined America spread, inspiring people around the world. Opportunities denied in other places due to religion, political opinion, or social class, were available here. And people came. Over the years, America welcomed the castoffs of other nations, those fleeing religious intolerance, famine, dictatorial rule, oppression, poverty, war, genocide…. But what they were fleeing from was only part of their motivation. They were also being drawn to something. The idea of America. It was a place of opportunity. No other nation recognized as well, or cherished as a matter of principle, the fact that the every person had something valuable to contribute, if only given the opportunity to do so. America was more than just a chunk of land. America was an idea, an inspirational one that many who were not yet American shared.
* These are just a few of the central points the founding fathers got from select Enlightenment philosophers:
- Hobbes – the need for a central unifying government
- Locke – separation of Church and State, and a belief in the right of all people to life, liberty, and property
- Montesquieu – separation of governmental powers between executive, judicial, and legislative branches
- Voltaire – Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equal opportunity
The Meaning of America Blog Series:
- PART 1 — When America Fears
- PART 2 — What Made America Different?
- PART 3 — America Was Meant to be Different
- PART 4 — The American Idea