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.
Iran's bitter legacy informed a column written two weeks ago in which I argued that America's foremost diplomatic goal should be encouraging "a resilient alliance of Egyptian secularists, moderate Islamists and the military." Events this week suggest the Egyptians are in the process of forging a democratic front that includes the Egyptian military -- luckily, an organization packed with committed Egyptian nationalists.
Furthermore, it seems the Egyptians are creating the front themselves, thank you. That sends a very positive signal. Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, they aren't reacting as tyrannized subjects, but as active, responsible citizens.
Over the weekend, the Egyptian military presented a group of youthful Egyptian revolutionaries with its plan for handling the transition from authoritarian regime to government by consent of the governed.
Twenty-first century technology promotes transparency, so parts of the plan were posted on the Internet. It called for amending the constitution and holding a referendum on the changes within the next two months. Revolutionary leaders are scrutinizing the military plan, for many suspect the military's motives. Since the rise of Gamal Nasser six decades ago, the military has buttressed one strong man government after another. The New York Times reported one revolutionary leader's assessment: "We have asked for another meeting this week to tell them (the military) about our plans. Then we'll see."
How the military receives the counter-proposal is crucial. Rejection or ambivalent delay sends the ominous message that there is at least one strong faction of military Bonapartists who prefer pharaoh to freedom. The give and take of sincere negotiations among revolutionary factions and the military, ending in authentic compromise, however, will not only forward the process of building a democratic front but signal the emergence of genuine democratic politics.
Pray Egypt's senior military leaders take John Hancock's advice and pull with the public will to secure liberty.