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.
More

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.

THE RIGHT OF REVOLUTION

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.
THE PRINCIPLE OF FEDERALISM

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.

Mexico, Argentina, and other Latin American countries adopted variants of the plan, and so did Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain applied it to two of its largest colonies, Canada and Australia, and in the twentieth century recast most of its empire into a Commonwealth of Nations on the same basis. More dramatically, the principle caused men to conceive of some sort of federation of the world, first in the League of Nations and then in the United Nations, both sponsored by American Presidents; and in the not too distant future it promises to bring about a United States of Western Europe.

THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED

Neither the doctrine of revolution nor the principle of federalism necessarily ensured that the government so established would rest on the consent of the governed. This was an entirely different matter, as the history of Latin American dictatorships as well as that of other nations proves. But, as we have seen, it was a basic tenet of the founders of the United States and may w-ell be regarded as America's third contribution to humanity.

The framers of the Constitution spurned European tradition by rejecting a monarchy, a nobility, or a hereditary legislative chamber, placing their trust in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, one which should rule by counting heads instead of breaking them. Starting with a somewhat limited number of voters but in better proportion than in any other country, the suffrage was broadened generation by generation until it came to include all adults of both sexes; and at every point America set the pace for the Old World. The underlying philosophy was not that the common man is all-wise, but only that he can govern himself better than anyone else can do it for him.

THE STATUS OF WOMEN

Women played a man's part as well as a woman's in taming the wilderness, and until very recently, moreover, they were fewer in number than the opposite sex and hence commanded a high scarcity value. From early times foreign observers marveled at the unusual educational opportunities open to them, their immunity from molestation when traveling alone, their freedom to go out of the home to agitate for temperance, antislavery, and other reforms. "From the captain of a western steamboat to the roughest miner in California," wrote one visitor, "from north, south, east, and west, we hear but one voice. Women are to be protected, respected, supported, and petted."

The organized feminist movement arose earlier in the United States than in any other nation not because American women enjoyed so few privileges but because they had so many that they demanded more — in short, all those exercised by their husbands and brothers, including that of suffrage. The famous women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, the first in the history of the world, turned the Declaration of Independence to account by proclaiming "all men and women are created equal" with the same unalienable rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It took the women many years to achieve that goal, but in time they succeeded, and every victory spurred their sisters in other lands to similar endeavors.

THE MELTING POT

A fifth contribution of the United States has been the fusing of many different nationalities in a single society. America has been in the best sense the term a melting pot, every ingredient adding its particular element of strength. The constant infusion of new blood has enriched our cultural life, speeded our material growth, and produced some of our ablest statesmen. Over 17 million immigrants arrived in the single period from -the Civil War to World War I — more than America's total population in 1840 — and today English and Scottish blood, the principal strain in colonial times, constitutes considerably less than half the whole.

Many other peoples, it is true, are also of mixed origin; but the American achievement stands alone in the scale, thoroughness, and rapidity of the process and, above all, in the fact that it has been the outcome not of forcible incorporation but of peaceful absorption. Significantly, the very nationalities which had habitually warred with one another in the Old World have lived together in harmony in the New. America has demonstrated for everyone with eyes to see that those things which unite peoples are greater than those which divide them, that war is not the inevitable fate of mankind.

Our most tragic failure has involved our Negro citizens, now a tenth of our number. Taken forcibly from Africa, trammeled in slavery for two and a half centuries, denied their constitutional rights after emancipation in the states where most of them lived, this ill-used race has been a standing reproach to our professions of democracy and has enabled Communist spokesmen as well as other foreign critics to impugn the very principle of human equality on which the republic was founded. Nevertheless, even these injured people have not been unwilling Americans, as the Irish before winning their freedom were unwilling Britons: they have only been unwilling to be halfway Americans or second-class citizens. Hence they have unhesitatingly rejected the blandishments of Soviet propaganda. Fortunately they can now at long last look forward to the final rectification of the wrongs they have so patiently endured.

FREEDOM OF WORSHIP

The recognition that the relations between man and his Creator are a private affair into which government must not intrude contravened the age-long European practice of uniting church and state and imposing harsh restrictions on dissenters. The American system was a legacy of colonial times, when the theological motive for settlement was intense and the multiplicity of denominations suggested the need for mutual forbearance. Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in the persons of Roger Williams, Lord Baltimore, and William Penn set the pattern to which the Bill of Rights of the federal Constitution gave nationwide sanction. Religion by choice was the natural counterpart of government by consent, and, contrary to Old World belief, the separation of church and state did not in fact weaken either but strengthened both.

THE PUBLIC SCHOOL

The principle of government by consent made it imperative that the people be literate and well informed if they were to vote intelligently. To ensure this essential condition, statesmen agreed that society must at its own initiative and expense supply the means of schooling. This, too, broke drastically with the Old World concept that education should be a privately financed undertaking for the upper classes, the rank and file supposedly having little need for any in what was deemed to be their permanently inferior station.

New England inaugurated the practice in colonial days; then, with the swift extension of the franchise during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was adopted throughout the North and later in the South. Free public education thus became the article of American faith it has continued to be ever since. From the United States the plan spread in modified form around the world. Japan, for example, in 1872 made it the cornerstone of its program of modernization. Probably America has conferred no greater boon on mankind, for popular education is the seedbed of virtually all other human aspirations.

VOLUNTARY GIVING

Foreigners have always criticized the American for his pursuit of the almighty dollar, but have seldom gone on to note that he has in unparalleled degree returned the fruits of his labors to society. If he has been hardheaded about making money, he has, so to speak, been softhearted about spending it. This constitutes the American version of the Old World concept of noblesse oblige carried to a point the Old World has never approached. Even long before Carnegie and Rockefeller amassed their colossal fortunes, men and women of modest means gave freely to schools, churches, foreign missions, colleges, hospitals, charities, and other projects for social betterment.

In the twentieth century this same concern has led men of wealth to set up some four thousand philanthropic foundations staffed with experts to administer the funds with maximum usefulness and for nearly every conceivable object of human benefit. Their programs, exceeding all earlier bounds, include the control of epidemic diseases and far-reaching researches in the natural and social sciences. Even so, the lion's share of the more than 6.5 billion dollars devoted to altruistic purposes last year still derived from other than foundation sources.

And, increasingly, Americans have extended their beneficence to foreign peoples. Over a century ago popular subscriptions helped relieve Irish suffering during the terrible potato famines of the 1840s and later aided with equal generosity the victims of natural catastrophes in other lands. And, besides the work of the Red Cross in peace and war, the great foundations have in our own day improved health, educational, and agricultural conditions in many countries. In the same tradition the private organization known as CARE has, since World War II, channeled gifts of food, clothing, medicine, and the like to the needy of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Thanks to this ingrained trait of the national character, the government found it easy to mobilize our people behind the Marshall Plan, a costly tax-supported program for repairing the war-sticken economies of Western Europe. Though these official undertakings were in part designed to halt the spread of Communism, they arose from deeper springs of human compassion and have no parallel in history.

TECHNOLOGY

Mechanical ingenuity, or what today is called technological know-how, contrary to common belief is by no means a late development. From the mid-eighteenth century on, the people, confronted with a chronic shortage of labor and the problems arising from formidable distances and poor communications, devised means to overcome these handicaps as well as to ameliorate other conditions of life. The record is truly remarkable. Before the end of the nineteenth century Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, and their successors produced such epochal inventions as the lightning rod, the cotton gin, the steamboat, the metal plow, the harvester, vulcanized rubber, the sewing machine, the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light, among others. In still other instances they greatly improved on what had come to them from abroad.

The upshot was not only to transform American life but that of peoples everywhere. President Truman therefore was not occupying wholly new ground when in 1949 he proposed his Point Four Program to make "the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas" and thus "help them realize their aspirations for a better life." Under this program the United States has sent experts in industry, engineering, and agriculture to many lands; built roads and bridges in Iran, irrigation works in India, and fertilizer plants in Korea; and endeavored in countless other ways to remove the obstacles that have barred less enterprising countries from the advantages of modern civilization. Just as the government has made our philanthropic impulse a vital instrument of foreign policy, so also it has done with our technological skill.

EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS

The United States is often considered a young nation, but in fact it is next to the oldest continuous government in the world. The reason is that the spirit of its people has always been empirical and pragmatic, dedicated to equalitarian ends but willing to realize them by flexible means. In the European sense of the term, America's major political parties are not parties at all, because they do not divide over basic ideologies. Neither wishes to overturn or replace the existing political and economic order; they merely desire to alter it at slower or faster rates of speed.

One of our proudest achievements has been the creation of a system of controlled capitalism that yields the highest living standards on earth and has made possible a society as nearly classless as man has ever known. The profit system as it has developed in America is a multiprofit system, sharing its benefits with all segments of society: capital, labor, and the consuming masses. Yet even this was not due to a preconceived blueprint; it too was the result of trial and error. Unprincipled businessmen had first to be brought to heel by government restraints and the growing power of organized labor before they came to learn that they must serve the general good in pursuing their selfish interests. Now labor is feeling the restraint.

Even our creed of democracy is no fixed and immutable dogma. Thus the statesmen of the early republic, though they were stalwart champions of private enterprise, chose to make the post office a government monopoly and to confide the schools to public ownership. Since then, by fits and starts, and most recently under the New Deal, the United States has taken on many of the characteristics of a welfare state. This has occurred, however, not under the banner of socialism or of any other "ism," but simply because the Americans hold with Lincoln that "the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities."


Viewed as a whole, the contributions of America to civilization will be seen to have been for the most part in the nature of methods or processes. They have aimed to release men from political and religious disabilities, from ignorance and poverty, from backbreaking toil. They have struck at the fetters which from time immemorial the Old World had fastened on human beings. They have opened the doors, of opportunity for the many while still assuring them to the few, in the belief that everyone should have an equal chance to be as unequal as he can without denying the same right to others. In brief, they have sought to substitute fluidity for rigid class distinctions as the vital principle of social well-being. And the consequence has been a general leveling of society upward instead of downward.

But what of the future? I recall what a thoughtful Hollander said to me a few years after World War II. Observing that Europe's age of greatness was now over and that Americans must henceforth take the lead in the advancement of civilization, he wondered whether they would be equal to the task. Plainly he had grave doubts, for like most foreigners he thought of us as having been only beneficiaries of the bounty of the Old World without making any creative returns in kind. But for an American historian the answer is clear. The true measure of our past contributions lies in the very fact that they have become so woven into the life of mankind that my Dutch friend was unaware of them. If we can only preserve our free institutions and our faith in the untrammeled human spirit, we shall triumphantly meet the challenge now before us.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In