News

    Perceptions Of The US Independence

    Multimedia

    Audio

    With their Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, America's Founding Fathers undertook something nobody tried before. Having broken their ties with Great Britain, they proposed a new form of government. All people, said the Declaration, are born free and endowed with certain unalienable rights. If the government violates or ignores those rights, the people can abolish it and replace it with a new one.

    The Librarian of Congress, prominent American historian James Billington, points out that until the American Revolution nobody dared to test similar views in practice.

    Mr. Billington says, "Nobody had ever thought that self-government was possible in a diffuse society, on a large scale, and that a government could be based on a written constitution that separated powers."

    The leaders of the American Revolution were well aware of the radical nature of their political enterprise. But many historians note that these men, farmers, merchants, lawyers, were in fact deeply conservative, practical-minded people.

    The British historian of Polish descent, Adam Zamoyski, is the author of the book: Holy Madness on the revolutions of the 18th and 19th century. He says, "On the one hand there was this hugely religious undertone to the whole enterprise. But at the same time one thinks really of sensible English gentlemen getting around and, you know, "Let's not get too overexcited about this."

    Matthew Spalding, Director of the Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, also notices these two sides of the American Revolution. He says it was radical in creating a new system of government, but careful not to upset established social norms and institutions.

    According to Mr. Spalding, "It didn't destroy property; it didn't undermine the Church; it didn't seek to overthrow a particular class or a group of individuals. The opposite model, of course, is France."

    The French Revolution of 1789 was inspired by the American example. But Susanne Desan, professor of French history at the University of Wisconsin explains that the French Revolution soon turned into a bitter war between different social classes. For some, it was also an experiment in making over not just the state, but humanity itself.

    Professor Desan says, "The French wanted literally to regenerate people, remake them, change the way they spoke, change the way they dressed, changed what they believed in. It was tremendously powerful and inspiring, but it also, of course, provoked opposition."

    Some historians believe that what helped Americans maintain their unity throughout the Revolution was, paradoxically, their huge diversity.

    Historian David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University says that even such basic notions as liberty and freedom were understood quite differently by New England Puritans, Pennsylvania Quakers, slaveholders of the South, and backwoodsmen on the colonies' western frontier. As none of these groups could hope to prevail over the others, they were forced to seek compromise. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, had to rewrite the document several times to make it acceptable to all of the colonies.

    Professor Fischer adds, "He originally had said that 'all men are created equal and independent,' and New Englanders objected to that idea of 'independent.' The Georgians and South Carolinians believed that their idea of liberty and freedom was entirely consistent with slavery. And so Jefferson had a very strong attack on slavery, which he was forced to remove from the document."

    News of the American Revolution spread quickly through 18th century Europe, which was simmering with its own revolutionary unrest. But historian Adam Zamoyski says most Europeans failed to understand either the universal message or the practical lessons of America's limited, socially moderate revolution.

    He says, "In Europe, people took the American revolution, misunderstood it, took what they liked out of it, turned it upside down and inside out, embroidered it and launched all sorts of highly ideological revolutions and enterprises to suit their own wishes, pretending they were following in the footsteps of [George] Washington and the American Founding Fathers. I think this incomprehension of what really was happening in America is still with us in many ways. Most Europeans have a very odd view of what Americans are really like."

    But Librarian of Congress, James Billington, says the American national experience launched in 1776 is still valid for all those who seek political change without destruction and violence.

    "It is the cumulative American experience that is important, that real change is effected by evolution within stable institutions and that you can combine innovation with stability," says Mr. Billington.

    The American Revolution, say historians, was a radical change mixed with a strong sense of continuity, a rebellion within self-imposed rule of law, a case of unity forced by diversity. Its paradoxical nature was probably the secret of its success and the source of everything that was and is unique about American history.

    This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeasti
    X
    June 29, 2016 6:15 PM
    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora