The “Great” and “Entrusted” American Experiment (No, Not the Think Tank)
As you might expect, I’m quick to note when someone uses the term “American Experiment” in referring to the Center. But I’m equally alert when the term has nothing to do with where I work, as when a newspaper used it, as I just discovered, in a remarkable editorial in 1860. Or when the locution was used a week ago in a nationally broadcast speech. It’s fair to say I’ve resonated to the term “American Experiment,” and variations on the theme, for a long time.
So, I was pleased a week ago Tuesday when Stacy Abrams, who lost her race for governor of Georgia in November, gave the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address, said in the ultimate sentence of her well-received remarks: “Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment – to do right by our people.” Nice.
As things turned out, this was within days of my finishing a new book by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, in which the Republican from Fremont took good advantage of the term American Experiment twice, as in:
“The two indispensable insights of the American experiment are inextricably linked: each and every individual is created with dignity – and therefore government, because it is not the source of our rights, is just a tool.”
And, “Our system is explicitly designed to bow to the dignity of each individual – and though we have failed grotesquely at times, the genius of the American experiment is its capacity to self-correction and improvement.”
Felicitously employed each time.
And then just the other day, I realized it was close to Presidents Day, a good reason for honoring George Washington, who wrote: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty . . . is finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”
As well as honoring Abraham Lincoln who said: “We made the experiment; and the fruit is before us.” (Only a spoilsport would point out the last two quotes, and a couple that follow, take advantage of the “variations” allowances mentioned above. As when, for instance, the brilliant historian Paul Johnson wrote, “The great American republican experiment is a ‘human achievement without parallel.’”)
It’s doubtless a surprise to many, but Presidents Day (at least I just read) is meant to celebrate all U.S. presidents, not only Washington and Lincoln. So, salutes to two more distinguished holders of the office, starting with Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man be governed by reason and truth.”
And Ronald Reagan, who said in a commencement speech at Notre Dame delivered less than two months after being shot in 1981:
“This experiment in man’s relation to man is a few years into its third century. Saying that may make it sound quite old. But let’s look at it from another viewpoint or perspective. A few years ago, someone figured out that if you could condense the entire history of life on earth into a motion picture [note he didn’t say ‘movie’] that would run for 24 hours a day, 365 days – this idea that is the United States wouldn’t appear on the screen until three and one-half seconds before midnight on December 31st.”
Last, a fascinating passage from a precisely titled editorial, “The American Experiment,” in the New York Daily Tribune of November 27, 1860:
“The social, and especially the political institutions of the United States, have, for the whole of the current century, been the subject in Europe, not merely of curious speculation, of the deepest interest. We have been regarded as engaged in trying a great experiment, involving not merely the future fate and welfare of this Western continent, but the hopes and prospects of the whole human race. Is it possible for a Government to be permanently maintained without privileged classes, without a standing army, and without either hereditary of self-appointed rulers? Is the democratic principle of equal rights, general suffrage, and government by a majority, capable of being carried into practical operation, and that, too over a large extent of country?”
Less than five months later, in April 1861, the nation, as Lincoln was to put it in the Gettysburg Address, was “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
By 1863, when Lincoln gave that most revered speech, all 272 words of it, it’s hard to know if the journalist or journalists who wrote the editorial were confident the American Experiment would in fact work. The same held with people who read it; did they think the still-young nation, shepherding the “hopes and prospects of the whole human race,” would prevail?
Blessedly, it has.