The Fourth of July is always an occasion to think about what the United States of America has been, is, and will be. A good way to reflect on that is to pick up a copy of "America 3.0" by James Bennett and Michael Lotus and ponder its lessons.
As the title suggests, Bennett and Lotus see the nation as having evolved from an agricultural America 1.0 to an industrial America 2.0 and struggling now to evolve again into an information age America 3.0. That's a familiar framework.
Where they differ from other analyses is that they see the roots of American exceptionalism, our penchant for liberty and individualism, stretching far back -- more than 1,000 years -- beyond 1776. Back to the Anglo-Saxon invaders of England after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Drawing on the 19th century historians Edward Augustus Freeman and Frederic Maitland and contemporary scholars Emmanuel Todd, Alan Macfarlane and James Campbell, they argue that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them a unique institution, the absolute nuclear family, "the continuous core of our distinct American culture."
In nuclear families, individuals, not parents, select spouses; women have comparative freedom and equality; children have no rights of inheritance; grown children leave parents' homes and are not bound to extended families.
On each point, this is contrary to longstanding family patterns in the rest of the world.
This enduring family pattern has consequences. It has made Americans liberty-loving, individualistic, keen for equal opportunity but not equal outcomes, venturesome, mobile and suspicious of big government.
From early on in England and then in America, the absolute nuclear family fostered a market economy, property ownership, and the common law, which evolves through individual court cases rather than a rigid code like Europe's Roman law.
These mores have promoted economic growth and enabled societies to adapt to economic changes. America 1.0 had very decentralized government, with new states left to pursue their own policies and courts determined to protect the common law. It peaked at the end of the Civil War.
Economic innovations required changes. Railroads and giant corporations required military-style bureaucracies. Rapidly booming cities required larger governments.
The result was America 2.0. Politicians experimented with German models, but settled in the 1930s for a "Social Lockeanism" that "wisely left room for individual initiative and entrepreneurship."