Ken Plum: The meaning of the American Revolution

flag2In May I attended the cornerstone dedication for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. I am a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and I am very pleased that a new museum is being built to commemorate the American victory at Yorktown. As noteworthy as the new structure is, most important is the envisioning of the message it will convey about the significance of the American victory in the stream of world history.

Principal speaker at the ceremony was Professor A. E. Dick Howard, a highly regarded expert on constitutional law from the University of Virginia. The major points he made in his speech, “The American Revolution and the World,” serve as the content of this column for which I give him full credit and thanks for sharing the text with me.

As Professor Howard points out, the American Revolution was “not simply about declaring independence, but about Americans grappling with the daunting question of how a people could govern themselves–how they could give government the power to act for the common good, yet at the same time limit even the people’s elected representation in order to secure individual liberty.”

The American Revolution unleashed “a great experiment” that included George Mason’s Declaration of Rights, Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom, Madison’s work on the U.S. Constitution, Washington’s refusal to become a monarch, and Marshall’s articulation of judicial review. It led to the establishment of the first federal system of government after the Articles of Confederation failed.

“Since then,” Professor Howard says, “the American nation has seen 237 years of constant testing and adaptation. The nation’s trials have included the terrible years of Civil War and Reconstruction, two world wars, the reordering of the economy during the Great Depression, and the struggle for equality exemplified by the civil rights movement.” Around the world the norms established in the American experiment of democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of law have become the basis upon which other governments have been formed. While other nations cannot copy our constitution they do adopt the basic principles that Americans have recognized as the birthright of free people everywhere.

“That is why the road from Yorktown stretches to so many parts of the globe,” Professor Howard said. “In telling the story of the American Revolution, we tell a story that resonates everywhere that people yearn for accountable government, the rule of law, and the freedom of the human spirit.” Our continued open debate about the nature of government is itself a sign of the strength of our government. Have a great Fourth of July! Spend a few minutes talking with friends and family about the worldwide significance the unleashing of independence has had on the rest of the world.


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