EDITOR’S NOTE: In his new book, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (ISI Books), Matthew Spalding defines America’s foundational principles, shows how they have come under assault by modern progressive-liberalism and lays out a strategy to recover them in American society. In this adapted excerpt, Spalding argues that the choice is between continued decline into a European-style, centralized state or rededication to the principles of liberty.
By any measure, the United States of America is a great nation. Thirteen colonies are now 50 states covering a vast continent and beyond. The U.S. economy accounts for almost a quarter of the total gross domestic product of all the countries in the world.
The strongest military force on Earth allows the United States to extend its power anywhere. The American people remain among the most hardworking, churchgoing, affluent, and generous. Just as George Washington predicted, the United States is a sovereign nation “in command of its own fortunes.”
And yet it seems we are on a course of self-destruction.
Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality — an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history. America is different. Unique among the nations, America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of a particular idea.
At its birth, this nation justified its independence by asserting truths said to be self-evident, according to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Working from the great principle of human equality, the revolutionaries who launched this experiment in popular government claimed a new basis of political legitimacy: the consent of those governed. Through a carefully written constitution, they created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law.
With this structure, they sought to establish true religious liberty, provide for economic opportunity, secure national independence, and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government — all in the name of a simple but radical idea of human liberty.
The founding of the United States was indeed revolutionary, but not in the sense of replacing one set of rulers with another or overthrowing the institutions of society. Our American Revolution was about the ideas upon which a new nation was to be established. Permanent truths “applicable to all men and all times,” as Abraham Lincoln later said, proclaimed that principle — rather than will — would be the ultimate ground of government.
What is truly revolutionary about America is that for the first time in human history these universal ideas became the foundation of a particular system of government and its political culture. It was because of these principles, not despite them, that, rather than ending in tyranny, the American Revolution culminated in a constitutional government that has long endured.