America was the first nation self-consciously founded as the embodiment of an idea — the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" and endowed by God with an "unalienable" right to life and liberty. In a world that had always connected nationhood and citizenship to blood, soil, and ethnicity, the democratic republic born in 1776 presented a prospect that was revolutionary in the profoundest sense imaginable — and Americans from the outset were certain that their model of self-government was destined to radiate outward, shaping the course of human events.
To Tocqueville, this was more than mere patriotic braggadocio. He could see that the world was ultimately going to be transformed by the enlightened doctrines of democratic liberty and individualism. But in America — remarkably — this great transformation had already "been effected with ease and simplicity."
In effect, Tocqueville was making a case for American exceptionalism though that phrase wouldn't be coined until the 1930s. "The emigrants who colonized the shores of America in the beginning of the 17th century somehow separated the democratic principle from all the principles that it had to contend with in the old communities of Europe, and transplanted it alone to the New World," he would write in the introduction to his great work. "It has there been able to spread in perfect freedom."
Tocqueville was an analyst, not a cheerleader. As anyone who reads Democracy in America is frequently reminded, he was well aware of the shortcomings of the American system. ("On entering the House of Representatives at Washington, one is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly.") But of the enduring force of those ideas adopted unanimously in Philadelphia in 1776, he had little doubt.
Nearly 16 decades after Tocqueville's Fourth of July in Albany, as democratic upheaval was shaking the Iron Curtain, protesters in Branik, an industrial section of Prague, joined a general strike.
"Zdenek Janicek, a brewery worker in grimy overalls, rose on a platform and began to speak," reported The New York Times on Page 1.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," he said, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The power of those words to move those who hear them — and to change the world for the better — remains undiminished, 237 years on.
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