How America's Founding Inspired the World

The global impact of our founding documents is a testament to the strength of their ideals.

This year’s Independence Day arrives with an ever-growing skepticism about the American project. National Public Radio, which has broadcast a reading of the Declaration of Independence for the past 32 years, decided to start their broadcast with a lengthy indictment of the document, noting its dehumanizing language aimed at the Native populations as well as its “flaws and deeply ingrained hypocrisies.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times decided to greet the holiday with a reported piece featuring disputes about the meaning of the American flag in a quiet Long Island town. “Today, flying the flag from the back of a pickup truck or over a lawn is increasingly seen as a clue, albeit an imperfect one, to a person’s political affiliation in a deeply divided nation,” it intoned.

Many political observers, particularly conservative pundits, took to lambasting both outlets for their less-than-enthusiastic takes on the nation’s day of independence. To these conservatives, this is evidence of liberal unmooring from the nation.

It should be noted that liberals have always been somewhat more skeptical of patriotic symbols than their conservative brethren. As the Times piece correctly notes, it was left-leaning activists who saw the National Anthem as an appropriate symbol for protest — although you should check out this study to complicate your view of how Americans really feel about that.

Still, it is surprising how rapidly the left has embraced a sort of predictable iconoclasm, where symbols of heritage and history are cast aside in pursuit of some kind of Year Zero where moral pollution is absent. I grew up in the American South in the 1990’s, and even the debates then did not have the exact same fervor and absolutism as the culture wars of today.

Former Democratic Governor Zell Miller portrayed his fight to revert to the pre-1956 Georgia flag — dropping the Confederate battle symbols from state endorsement — as an attempt to move forward to an inclusive future where everyone in the state felt welcome, not as an attempt to sever the connection between Georgians and their ancestors who fought and died in the fields of the Civil War or to shame their descendants (his 1993 address on this manner is a masterstroke of political rhetoric and tackling a divisive cultural issue without demonization of the public).

The fervor that is sweeping parts of the West today is different. It doesn’t feel so much like it’s trying to build a future where everyone is welcome so much as fundamentally indict Western civilization itself. How often do you hear about a racial “reckoning” without any detail about what such a reckoning would entail? Why is it leading liberal politicians are talking about establishing a “truth and reconciliation” commission to interrogate their police forces or investigate societal racism, something that normally happens immediately after a civil war or mass atrocity?

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This disturbs me not because I think we should be afraid to face American history or Georgia history or (the famous Stone Mountain memorial appears to finally be getting a bit of a facelift to acknowledge the discomforting facts around its origins). I’m a journalist. I spend all day writing about America’s problems. You can’t solve a problem without facing it, and history can help inform you about how how we arrived at so many of the problems of the present.

But facing history also means looking at what worked. We have to be careful about reducing the Founding of the United States to simply a group of wealthy land-owning men creating a country for themselves while selfishly disregarding the rights of women, the poor, slaves, and others on the margin of society. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater; there is actually a lot to learn about the American experiment based on what we got right.

Take, for instance, the Declaration itself. NPR isn’t wrong that America didn’t quite live up to its own grandiose ideals at the time that it was written. But those ideals went on to inspire not only Americans, but the rest of the world, for generations to come.

As the historian David Armitage notes, it wasn’t long before people overseas began to take note of the fledgling colony of misfits who decided to stand up to the British empire. “In January 1790, the Austrian province of Flanders expressed a desire to become a free and independent state in a document whose concluding lines drew directly on a French translation of the American Declaration,” he writes.

Many other nations followed suit, using similar language in their own founding documents — much of the Global South, including Venezuela, Haiti, El Salvador, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, and others either directly copied from our Declaration or were inspired by it.

Even countries that had little relationship to the United States and plenty of indigenous inspiration for their establishment looked to us when they drafted their documents. Jerusalem lawyer Mordechai Beham reportedly used the Declaration as a sort of prototype from which he authored the first draft of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Ironically, sometimes even people we ultimately went to war with admired the Declaration, or were at least willing to play to its popularity to make their arguments:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

That’s the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, authored by Ho Chi Minh. Although it would take decades for Vietnam to ultimately gain its independence from France (and the United States), it is remarkable that the country’s long struggle included the explicit citation of American ideals.

To much of the world, the United States, for all its flaws, remains a tremendous inspiration. Gallup’s global polling suggests 158 million people would choose the United States if they could pick anywhere to move to, making us far and away the most popular country for migrants. As we face off with China in global competition, most of the world still prefers the United States as global leader.

If we let ourselves become enveloped in oikophobia, we risk going from healthy critics of our country to opponents of it. And if we can’t take pride in ourselves, how can we continue to inspire confidence in others?

My family hasn’t been in the United States too long. We trace our lineage to Pakistan. Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, did not directly cite the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights in his first presidential address to his Constituent Assembly, the ideas he expressed could’ve been uttered by any number of our Founders.

He cited the history of the British state that had for centuries oppressed the subcontinent, noting that the sectarianism of religious division had caused them a great deal of grief:

As you know, history shows that in England conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. […] We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State. The people of England in [the] course of time had to face the realities of the situation, and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country; and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain, and they are all members of the Nation.

He then concluded that Pakistan should come to the same conclusion the British eventually did and see religion as a personal matter that isn’t policed by the state:

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

He closed that address by telling his audience the good news that the Secretary of State of the United States had just sent Pakistan a message: “On the occasion of the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly for Pakistan, I extend to you and to the members of the Assembly, the best wishes of the Government and the people of the United States for the successful conclusion of the great work you are about to undertake.”

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