The Supreme Court of the United States having vacated all of the spurious charges that have caused me to spend the last three U.S. Independence Days as an involuntary guest of the American people, I expected I would be in more celebratory mood this July 4 than on the last two. I wasn’t, and could not bring myself to attend the comparative gastronomic treat it prompts here. (One of the many irritations of my enforced dalliance is that the weekend newspapers arrive well after the weekend, and I have just discovered that the admirable Peggy Noonan also wrote on a related subject. But that is not unusual on that holiday, and to use a ghastly cliché, so camp it might not offend her, I’m sure she would not wish me to start over again.)
The United States has not ceased to be a great nation because it has persecuted me half to death, and some readers will recall my exchanges a couple of months ago with Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg over the meaning of “American Exceptionalism.” The point I was making about America’s championship of democracy was not that the American Revolution was chiefly about who was going to pay for the British eviction of the French from North America in the Seven Years’ War, nor even about the division of authority between local and overseas jurisdictions (perspectives that rankled somewhat with my correspondents). It was that apart from France (sporadically), democracy in the world scarcely progressed at all in the 162 years from the end of the American Revolution to the start of the Cold War. (The democracies, at the beginning and end of the period, were the English-speaking and the Low Countries, Swiss cantons, and parts of Scandinavia.)
Once the U.S. foreign- and security-policy team that had been the great wartime Roosevelt entourage — Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Acheson, McCloy, Kennan, Bohlen, and others — announced that the superpower rivalry with the Kremlin was a contest between totalitarian Communism and the Free World, democracy took off like a steroid-hyped gazelle. Germany, Japan, and Italy were reprogrammed as democratic allies, and uneven but irresistible pressures were asserted on such allies as Spain, Portugal, South Korea, Greece, Turkey, Taiwan, most of Latin America, and ultimately, Central and Eastern Europe. Democracy has conquered most of the world, even if those pressures sometimes backfired, as in Iran and Cuba.
America, exceptionally, and in the greatest service any nationality has rendered the world since Britain gave it the English language, common law, and parliamentary government, democratized huge tracts of the world, including by aggressively encouraging the decolonization of its closest allies, especially in India and Israel. But as America has steadily become more of a prosecutocracy and carceral state, and the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment guarantees of civil liberties and individual rights and due process have largely putrefied (which is why I write from a federal prison), and politics has been severely corroded by the insidious seepage of unselflessly motivated pecuniary activities, there are now many better functioning democracies than the U.S. There are dozens, and on every continent except Africa and Antarctica (and I’m not sure about the penguins). In a democracy, the people are always right, and if Americans are happy with their country as it is, of course, that opinion is sovereign and determining. I don’t think most Americans have the remotest idea of how badly some areas have deteriorated, but that is neither here nor there.
Of course, the colonists had the better of the argument in 1776 (though not so one-sidedly as Americans like to pretend), but it was tragic that this terrible fissure in the English-speaking world occurred at all. The debacle in America finished the exercise of power by the monarch through “the King’s friends,” and contributed to George III’s incapacitation, from porphyria. The forces of indigenous British parliamentary democracy, led by the Pitts, Fox, and Burke — all opponents of official policy in America — made this sort of capricious meddling from the throne impossible. But the American horses had fled. Britain and America then began a benign competition toward an ever-less-imperfect democracy, and Canada was the main beneficiary of more enlightened British colonial government, peacefully acceding to independence in 1867.
Burke estimated that in the American Revolutionary War, a third of the British supported the colonists, and John Adams thought that about the same proportion of Americans were loyal to the British Crown. So it was a civil war, both in the English-speaking world and within its two principal components. (Those decrying disharmony in the Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam Wars, should know their antecedents.)
If the British and Americans had remained in some sort of association, there would not have been a delicately close balance of power in Europe after the unification of Germany, one that put all civilization at risk every generation and required American intervention like a trans-oceanic 7th Cavalry in Manichaean struggles in both World Wars. The Pax Britannica and Pax Americana would have been an unchallengeable Pax Atlantica, undisturbed by Nazism and Communism, as there would have been no World Wars, and it would be about to celebrate its 200th anniversary after Waterloo. Cities of real alabaster would have been relatively undimmed by human tears.