The most successful large Utopian experiment in history

by John MacBeath Watkins

America is the most successful large Utopian experiment of all time.

Up until its founding, nations were made up of territories where a majority of people belonged to one ethnicity, whose language, religion, customs, and appearance were similar enough that people could recognized their fellow citizens as "one of us."

In contrast, consider this charge against King George III in the Declaration of Independence:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
Not only were they building a new country not based on ethnicity, they were upset that the king was not allowing them to encourage foreigners -- people who were not English -- to come to this land and become citizens.

America was founded not as an ethno-religious state like those of Europe, but as an experiment in building a society based on reason. Americans would have no king, no nobility, no state religion. People could worship as they saw fit, they could speak their minds, and they could select their leaders -- or, should they find their leaders needed to be removed, they could remove them.

There was nothing else like it in the world. There had been democratic and republican states in the ancient world, but not states without a state religion. Even the Netherlands, governed as a republic after 1649 and considered a bastion of free speech, was an ethnically homogeneous state that had its founding in a war between Catholics and Protestants.

There are countries where more than one language is spoken, such as Switzerland and Belgium, but America never has had an official language. The Pennsylvania Dutch (ethnically Deutsch, that is, German) developed their own version of German. Our 8th president, Martin Van Buren, spoke Dutch as his first language, as did most of the residents of Kinderhook, N.Y., where he grew up (he was the first president born after the American revolution, therefore the first president born an American citizen.) Thorstein Veblen, one of America's most famous academics and the inventor of the concept of conspicuous consumption, had Norwegian as his first language and only started to learn English when he went to school (he was born in Wisconsin to Norwegian immigrant parents and had plenty of Norwegian-speaking playmates.)

And I frequently get old books in German that were published in Chicago, because many German-speaking communities in America wanted books in their language. The truth is, 18th and 19th century America was more multicultural than melting pot, which was fine, because America was not founded to be an ethnic or religious state. It was intended to be a bold experiment to find a better way for humanity to live together, to reduce conflict and increase happiness. Consider the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
No medieval king or queen would have recognized this as a proper way of governing. The sovereign served God, not the people, and God's earthly representatives gave their approval (or not) to the sovereign's reign.

We have lived so long by the founders' principles that we no longer appreciate how unique the experiment is. Faced with enemies who wish to frame conflicts in ethnic and religious terms, some wish to respond in kind, instead of playing to America's strengths, such as a tolerance of differences that allows us to absorb instead of conquer, and a freewheeling, vibrant culture that attracts others, instead of subjugating people outside of it.

Click on the "rethinking liberalism" label below in red and you'll see a list of posts exploring this heritage.

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