Our Ten Contributions to Civilization

A native of Ohio and a graduate of Ohio State, ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER was appointed to his professorship at Harvard in 1924. As a teacher and author he is internationally respected for his knowledge of American history, and in the paper that follows he reminds us that over the years this nation has made its weight felt more by ideas than by wealth.

SINCE the United States has now become the leader of the free world, our allies are asking, and we ourselves should be asking, what this portends for the future of civilization. The key to the answer, I suggest, lies in what I venture to call America's seminal contributions of the past. In my view there have been at least ten.


First and foremost stands the concept of the inherent and universal right of revolution proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence: the doctrine that "all men are created equal" possessing "unalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness," with the corollary that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" and that therefore the people have the right to supplant a government "destructive of these ends" with one which they believe "most likely to effect their safety and happiness. True, the history of England provided precedents for the men of 1776, and the Age of Enlightenment supplied intellectual support; but the flaming pronouncement, followed by its vindication on the battlefield, made the doctrine ever afterward an irrepressible agency in "the course of human events."

Europe was the first to respond. In 1789 occurred the great French Revolution, the forerunner of two later ones of the French people during the nineteenth century; and neighboring countries were not slow to follow. A series of revolts, centering in 1830 and 1848, drove the Turks from Greece, overturned or strove to overturn illiberal governments through most of the rest of the Continent, and hastened political reforms in other lands to forestall popular upheavals.

These convulsions all had their internal causes, but in every instance the leaders derived inspiration from America's achievement of popular rule as well as from its freely expressed interest in their similar aspirations. Presidents, Congresses, and civic gatherings applauded the uprisings, and American volunteers actually fought in the Greek war of liberation. After Russia helped Austria to suppress the Hungarian rebellion, a United States warship late in 1851 brought the Magyar patriot Kossuth to this country, where he received the honors of an American hero. The citizens of Springfield, Illinois, for example, rallied to his cause in words which have a fresh and poignant significance for us today. Affirming "the right of any people...to throw off...their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose," they condemned the "interference of Russia in the Hungarian struggle" as "illegal and unwarrantable" and asserted that "to have resisted Russia...would have been no violation of our own cherished principles...but, on the contrary, would be ever meritorious, in us, or any independent nation." Abraham Lincoln, then in private life, was one of the authors of the resolutions.

The doctrine of revolution, however, had still broader implications. The European eruptions in most instances sought merely to replace domestic regimes; the American revolt, to cast off a distant yoke. It was the first of the great colonial insurrections, an example all the more potent because Washington's ill-trained soldiers defeated the mightiest nation in the world. The Spanish dependencies to the south took heed and early in the nineteenth century won their freedom. Then, oddly enough, came a setback to the trend as a large part of Asia and Africa and many islands of the Pacific fell under the sway of Old World powers. And after a time even the United States, forgetful of its own once colonial status, followed suit.

But in the twentieth century the two world wars radically changed the situation, recalling the United States to its historic heritage, crippling the military strength of the European imperialist countries, and awakening subject peoples everywhere to their right of self-determination. America led the way by relinquishing its Caribbean protectorates and granting independence to the Philippines, and soon the Old World governments fell into line, some voluntarily to anticipate the inevitable, as in the case of England, and others because they were unable to quell native rebellions, as in the cases of France and Holland.

Although more than a century and a half has elapsed since America proclaimed the right of revolution, these events of our own day evidence its continuing vitality. Lest I be accused of claiming too much for a precedent so far in the past, consider the words of President Sukarno of Indonesia three and a half years ago in his address of welcome to the Bandung Conference. This AsianAfrican gathering, the first of its kind in history, brought together delegates from twenty-nine nations, most of them newly free. "The battle against colonialism," Sukarno declared,

has been a long one, and do you know that today is a famous anniversary in that battle? On the eighteenth day of April, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, just one hundred and eighty years ago, Paul Revere rode at midnight through the New England countryside, warning of the approach of British troops and of the opening of the American War of Independence, the first successful anticolonial war in history. About this midnight ride the poet Longfellow wrote:
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door
And a word that shall echo for evermore...
Yes [he concluded], it shall echo for evermore...until we can survey this our own world, and can say that colonialism is dead.

Because of the difficulties experienced under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of 1787 established a partnership of self-governing commonwealths with an overall elective government powerful enough to protect and promote their joint concerns and — what was no less important — with a provision for admitting later states on a plane of full equality. This was something new in history; Tocqueville called it "a great discovery in modern political science," for no other people had ever devised a federal structure over so large an area or with a central government chosen by popular vote or on such generous terms for future members. It offered mankind a key to the age--old problem of reconciling legitimate local interests with the general good.

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