As revolutions go, it was the first liberal democratic domino -- and 235 years later, its proclamation that human beings are endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness continues to empower democratic revolutionaries challenging autocracies and dictatorships.
The American Revolution also provides the emerging architects of Egyptian democracy with very practical advice: Hang together, or you'll substitute one tyrant for another.
As the Continental Congress prepared to ratify the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock urged the opinionated rebels serving in the assembly to pass it unanimously. "There must be no pulling in different ways," Hancock said. "We must all hang together."
To which Benjamin Franklin allegedly quipped: "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Franklin may not have actually delivered this perfect rejoinder -- it remains a point of academic debate.
However, there is no debate about Hancock's crucial point. Tyrants can focus their instruments of power -- secret police, armies, controlled media, terrorists and assassins. Democratic movements, however, are aggregations of individuals united by an idea that commits a society to a process -- a pursuit that will always be imperfect and therefore generate disagreement.
A democratic movement will never march in lockstep, but common principles -- such as dedication to individual rights -- must translate into a common spine to resist, with armed force when necessary, inevitable manipulation, threat and attack by tyrants, terrorists and their vicious partisans.
Recent history bears tragic witness. In the aftermath of their popular rebellion of 1979, the hodgepodge collection of Iranian liberals and nationalists fragmented. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's radical Islamic totalitarians divided the democratic coalition and attacked them individually.
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first president after the 1979 revolt, identifies the failure to form a unified democratic front as the Iranians greatest strategic error. In an essay published in the Christian Science Monitor last month, Bani-Sadr said most Iranian political organizations "did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party ... ."
The Iranians hung separately.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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