A More Perfect Union

My fellow Americans, on July 4th we gather to celebrate our country’s independence and pay homage to its founders. We remember this country began as a unique adventure in freedom, individual liberty and rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The United States is today the preeminent world power and beacon of freedom around the globe.

As we glory in America’s independence, we tend to overlook the second part of the independence equation: Great Britain. In declaring independence, we broke from British rule, while inventing a nation inspired by British ideas. It was Thomas Paine, an anti-monarchial Englishman, who urged the Americans to declare independence and sever ties with Britain in his 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense”.

Just seven months before the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, with Colonists already battling British forces, Thomas Jefferson, its principal author, wrote to an English friend, “Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.”

Jefferson’s love of Britain and passion for American independence sprang from the same sources. The works of English political philosopher John Locke supplied Jefferson with the arguments for inalienable natural rights, including those of property and the right to rebel against overreaching governments. Jefferson modified Locke’s phrase “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was Scottish philosopher Henry Home from whom Jefferson lifted the “pursuit of happiness.”

Free markets? Thank Adam Smith, another Scot. Limited government? An idea first established in the Magna Carta (1215), English common law and the English Bill of Rights (1689). Be grateful Jefferson was a voracious reader.

The Colonies did not bristle with discontent under British rule. The British treated their American subjects with what Edmund Burke called “salutary neglect”, allowing the Colonists to manage their society with little interference. The trifling duties imposed by Parliament, after the budget-busting Seven Years War, found disfavor with Colonists more as a breach of English Constitutional principles than for their rapacity.

The leaders of the American Revolution were wealthy landowners interested, not in demolishing existing institutions, but controlling them—an early form of hostile takeover. This was not a revolution to improve the lot of the masses, but to bolster the Colonial elite’s power and wealth.

The true revolution was not the Colonies’ insurrection against the Mother Country, but one of the ideas shipped over from Britain and brilliantly hybridized by the Founding Fathers. Our country’s core values—democracy, individual freedom, a free press, a constitution—were English imports, just like the infamous tea. Had the Brits imposed duties on political thought, the Colonists would have staged The Boston Idea Party.

This July 4th, eleven score and fourteen years after the Declaration of Independence, I propose that the United States join the Commonwealth of Nations, the federation of former and current Crown territories.

You may not know the Commonwealth. It’s not a military juggernaut like NATO; an exclusive club based on economic clout like the G8; nor a bureaucratic behemoth—of democracies, dictatorships and everything in-between—like the United Nations.

The Commonwealth is a “country club” we should belong to. The alliance of 54 sovereign nations—small, medium, large, rich and poor—is united by the ideals we share: democracy, liberty, the rule of law, equality and free trade.

Itself a democracy, the Commonwealth’s policies are created by consensus: no nation is more equal than any other. And their deliberations are conducted in English, the common language of the former British colonies. With members on all six inhabited continents, the sun never sets on the Commonwealth of Nations or its ideals.

As a plant breeder, I am keenly aware of the extraordinary outcomes that arise from crossing widely different strains. A successful hybrid plant demonstrates “hybrid vigor”: it’s healthier, hardier and more productive.

The same phenomenon is evident in culture, a word with roots in agriculture. Since 1776, we have gradually lost the receptivity to foreign ideas that helped inspire our country’s founding fathers. Just as Jefferson, a plant breeder himself, selected and adapted ideas from British philosophers and applied them to the Colonies, we can absorb and integrate the insights and ideas of our Commonwealth friends, and they ours.

For instance, throughout the former British Empire, people utilize the English language with a fluency, clarity and flair that Americans lack: it’s the difference between speaking and talking. Whether in Parliament, the press or the pub, Brits relish the sparky give-and-take of debate, repartee, and battle of wits, as do others in the Commonwealth states. In the U.S., verbal cleverness and wordplay are more despised than prized, and to our detriment.

So let’s break out our Latin schoolbooks, brush up our Shakespeare, sharpen our wits and join the scrum of liberal democracies that is the Commonwealth of Nations.

Jefferson would surely approve.

The above appeared in a shorter version in the Op/Ed section of The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 1, 2010.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 1st, 2010 at 1:07 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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16 Responses to “A More Perfect Union”

  1. boozy said:

    Amen. these things are not being taught to our young people anymore

    • George said:

      Right, boozy. This is reflected in adult readers as well. Compared to other nations, the US reads very little foreign literature in translation. Only the old classics, such as French and Russian novels. But even few of them. Appalling.

  2. elspeth grant bobbs said:

    Oh frabjous day, I am chortling. The idea of joining the Commonwealth, is wonderful, even sensible, but ,pray, would they have us? Let alone would the Irish allow it.

    • George said:

      Thanks. The Irish? Not sure what you mean. However, were the US to enter the Commonwealth, its membership would grow to 2.2 billion—a billion or so people more than Russia and China combined. With the United States on board, the Commonwealth’s land area would reach 15,685,209 square miles, four times the area of China, and double that of Russia. Add the U.S. GDP of $14.2 trillion to the $10.6 trillion GDP of the Commonwealth nations, and it comes to $24.8 trillion, which is a lot of money to support NGO type activities. Democracy pays.

  3. Debbie Reddy said:

    Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy reading your emails!

    • George said:

      Thank you very much.

  4. Susan Wallace said:

    “since 1776, we have lost receptivity to foreign ideas…” Oh really, the literate among us are not quite so parochial as all that. Please remember that our own anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements originated in 19th century England, well before legitimization here. Today, take a look at the NY Review of Books, the New Republic, New Yorker, etc. and you’ll find a good sample of Anglophone ideas and authors familiar to our reading public. The canon of major English writers not only survives, but steadily grows on our shores.
    From an Anglophile reader grateful to her ancestral heritage

    • George said:

      Am I being parochial? I thought I was suggesting the opposite—a membership in an NGO type international federation of 54 sovereign nations. We go to meetings, share ideas? Bond with people who speak better English than we do? Acquire larger vocabularies in the future? I’m not sure that is being “parochial”. Thanks for posting.

  5. james said:

    At the present time, we seem to hear voices calling louder and louder for a future that is focused inwards at the cost of a greater isolation than ever before.
    So it is not unusual that, for some of us, the hope of joining the Commonwealth of Nations sounds more positive than many others.

    It would not only be a positive hope for the United States, but also for each member of that Commonwealth.

    We, each individually and together as a nation, should aspire to being a part of something that is greater than ourselves. For, whether or not we fully realize it in our own lives, it is a fact of our humanity.

    • George said:

      Thank you, James. You stated my point better than I did. Please post again.

  6. Jill Salmon said:

    Remember that the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth-so good luck selling that to a nation of ex-colonials!

  7. Dianne Young said:

    Here, here and huzzah!

  8. Steve McNew said:

    Sounds good! Do you suppose they’d have us back?? And could we perhaps swing to a parliamentary legislature??

  9. Steve McNew said:

    In response to Boozy, on what isn’t taught anymore – Right you are; that’s one of the fruits of local democracy in education – History and our place in it have lost out of recent years, to what, I wonder? I suppose we’ve been dumbing down since those fellows left that Grove of Academe – Still, we could use some smartening up! Steve

  10. elspeth grant bobbs said:

    You and James put the case so well and I love it. “But me no buts”, living in New Mexico where so much has to be put in spanish I have to wonder what if all the spanish speaking countries got together? Fascinating speculations. A step up from tribalism at least and on the way to a unified planet? A long time coming.

  11. PJ Frederick said:

    I am computer challenged…left in the dust swirling around 21st century technology. Of the relatively few exchanges of postings on any given political subject that I have read over the years, this site offers the most civil conversation. I appreciate it.

    James’ post is beautifully stated. “We…should aspire to being a part of something that is greater than ourselves” is sage advise. Sadly, the loudest voices that are screaming in our ears via the corporate main stream media are screeching out the messages of hate and fear of ‘the other’. The populace is inundated with the spurious idea that we are the greatest. We are infused with the misguided perception of being exceptional. We should remember that having the most money and the most guns does not make us greater than, or in charge of the rest of humankind. If one does not seek the truth one is successfully bamboozled into believing that America is incapable of doing wrong. We believe that we are the torch bearers of individual freedoms and democracy and that God should bestow His blessings upon us as we willfully and with impunity torture, degrade the earth and blow up innocents across the globe. In fact, we are seekers of empire at any price.

    Let us humble ourselves and work tirelessly for peace and justice.

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