You Can Have it Too

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The American idea is obscured today in smoke arising from combat between liberals and conservatives. If we go back to our Founders, however, we can still discern an experiment in self-government that held promise for all mankind. Though intended for the direct benefit only of Americans, the experiment gave us a universal task: not to impose republics everywhere, but to show that they can be chosen by other peoples with some chance of success. This was the source of American “exceptionalism,” and far from being unique, the American republic would be only the first of many modern republics. American patriotism has always said to others not “We are inherently superior,” but “You can have it too.” This is conservative pride and tradition mixed with liberal inclusiveness and innovation.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

The future of the American idea is clouded by the fact that the proof of its success was never intended to be conclusive. No plan for free government was found, or even attempted, that did not depend on the virtue of each generation entrusted with it. We in our time will not succeed through slavish devotion to “our fathers” (as Lincoln called them), and by the same token, our principles having been designed to be flexible, there is no need to depart from them just because they have lasted as long as they have. We do need to study those principles and their living history.

Whether the greater danger turns out to be global warming or Islamic terrorism, or both together—or neither—we shall want to protect our rights, for which we shall need prudence. Above all other rights will always be the right of consent to government that ensures those rights. And no better form of government has been discovered than the Constitution we rightly venerate.

As we look ahead, our rights and our Constitution are visible like beacons in the mist.

Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard.
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