Franke: 1776 — A Failed Experiment?

February 21, 2024

by Mark Franke

Presentism is one of the pervasive evils in our brave new world. It is the new orthodoxy to examine history under a filtering lens that subjects all events and people to our modern conceits.

And it is not surprising that everything in the past falls short at some point. Perfection, you see, is the minimal standard for these modern-day Torquemadas . . . a perfectionist standard decreed by some woke politburo meeting somewhere other than here in flyover country.

Our nation’s founding has taken a beating as its few imperfections glare so brightly that its many triumphs are pushed into an ideological outer darkness. That leaves our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as symbols of liberty and opportunity nearly everywhere but here.

No matter that our Constitution is the longest surviving written document of its kind. It should be dismissed if not entirely discarded because it was written to protect slavery, as the 1619 Project would have us believe. If that were true, the Constitution failed at that since slavery has been outlawed since the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

The Founding Fathers were no more perfect than we are but they collectively applied a genius unequaled in our history. In a perfect world the slavery issue would have been dealt with in 1787 without compromise but we humans have made this world very much imperfect. Compromise was the crucible at the Constitutional Convention with the hope, not misguided, that the imperfect could be made perfect, or at least better, through the governmental institutions created by that document. Witness the 13th Amendment.

Why is that simple principle, that imperfect human beings strove to make things better as best they could, under such attack today? Is our democracy, foundationally dependent on the Constitution, in serious trouble? It isn’t just the silliness of the “1619 Project”; too many Americans appear ready to consign the American system to the dustbin of history. Why is that?

My monthly discussion group recently took on the issue of our democracy’s future. Is it past saving? Do enough people care to make the effort to save it? Or has it simply outlived its usefulness in a modern world fundamentally different from that of 1776?

When 60 percent of Americans have little or no confidence in our political system, as a recent Pew study reported, it’s difficult for the other 40 percent to maintain their confidence. Our group, holding life membership in the 40-percent club, is not ready to concede defeat. The task of restoring confidence in the American system is daunting but we believe now is the time for undaunted courage, to steal a phrase from Steven Ambrose.

Being undaunted in our optimism, we had to ask if things are really this bad. Americans have earned an international reputation over the past two and a half centuries as a people who are determined and resilient. We pulled together after Pearl Harbor and 9/11 despite underlying political differences. These two events were clearly seen as existential threats to our being. Perhaps we are reaching that point again, the threat this time coming from within our nation rather than from without.

It required multiple generations to degrade from the patriotic love of the Greatest Generation to the nihilistic attitudes prevalent among too many Millennials and Generation Z’ers. We should be prepared to work through at least that many more generations to restore trust in our system.

No matter how many it takes, it must start now with those who are in school and still forming attitudes that will accompany them into adulthood. Maybe we ought to make the Broadway musical “1776” required viewing for high school seniors in their mandatory government classes. Or perhaps “Hamilton” would be a better received choice due to its musical score.

My group believes that we Constitutional supporters have a secret weapon — our political DNA. It was this DNA that brought about the colonial revolt, when Americans saw their inherent rights as Englishmen being trampled. Jefferson’s soaring prose in the first paragraphs of the Declaration captured this sentiment as well as anyone could have.

If our DNA metaphor is correct, that DNA still resides in our collective psyche awaiting its metaphysical call to arms. To paraphrase the first-century rabbi Hillel: If not us, whom? If not now, when?

The group is willing and eager to take up the challenge to redeem America’s ethos by speaking out in public and private settings, telling the amazing story of America’s contribution to democratic government. The American story will get out, one way or another.

And our current day censorious presentists? George Will wrote in his book “The Conservative Sensibility” that today’s present will be tomorrow’s past, being looked back on with the same ignorance and arrogance by a future generation.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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