Americans have often looked to the era of the nation's founding as a way of gaining insight into their own later times. To do this now, in the 21st century, requires facing up to certain truths that are both illuminating and dismaying.
One of these is the extent to which present-day America has come to resemble the Britain of King George III, the very nation our revolutionary forebears so momentously rebelled against.
Pulitzer prize-winning historian Gordon Wood has concisely described the troubled condition of Britain during the era that led up to the great rebellion in America. It was, he writes, an age in which Britain experienced "the rise of huge banks" and "the emergence of new moneyed men."
Burdened with an "increasing public debt," Britain had fallen into serious fiscal difficulties. Combined with these developments was a "corruption of politics," both actual and perceived, that had overtaken its public life and power structure.
Given these circumstances, Americans in increasing numbers came to view Britain as an ominous, "dangerously diseased," corrupted nation. Specific actions by the government in London, directed against established colonial rights and liberties, stirred growing anger and alienation across the Atlantic. But the broader, more generalized negative view of Britain also became a major factor that drew Americans toward the choice to break away from British rule.
Rarely, if ever, since then has the condition of the United States had as much in common with George III's Britain as it does in our time. We, too, have experienced the rise of huge banks, those problematic behemoths that had to be bailed out and, despite subsequent reforms, still have the potential to pose large risks to our economy and financial system. We, too, have seen the emergence of new moneyed men, notably including those Wall Street innovators who unleashed a torrent of toxic financial products on this country, causing harm that is still very much with us. We, too, confront the burden of rising public debt, which at the federal level was less than $6 trillion when this century began and is now approaching $18 trillion.
And we are experiencing our own all-too-familiar corruption of politics: the incumbents beholden to special interests, the crony capitalism, the incessant fund raising, the legions of high-powered lobbyists swarming over Washington, the overthrow of previously established limits on the role and power of organized money in politics, and so on.
In sum, then, it is an important truth of our time that this nation has put itself increasingly at odds with some of the fundamental elements of purpose and belief that motivated our founding revolution.
This perverse reality underscores the troubled condition of 21st century America. It reflects a political culture damaged by the entrenched power of narrowly self-interested elites and stunted by extremes of partisan polarization and ideological rigidity. This state of affairs contrasts starkly with the bold, pathbreaking ideals and historic achievements of those revolutionary Americans who separated from George III's Britain and brought this nation into existence.
Our great founders were, of course, flawed mortals. They had their shortcomings and contradictions. They also disagreed among themselves, producing some periods of bitter political strife. Yet at crucial points they displayed a vital degree of pragmatism and compromise, the foremost example being the politically arduous making of the U.S. Constitution itself.
The epic story of the nation's founding thus provides an invaluable perspective on some of the thorniest problems and deepest failings of 21st century America. Inherently, the legacy of the founders challenges us to come more fully to grips with these hard realities, to engage with them in a spirit that is bold and unflinching, searching and thoughtful. That is a path that points the way toward a better America, a nation more just and admirable, for ourselves and for posterity.