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The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country -- and Why It Can Again Excerpt from The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country -- and Why It Can Again

by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes


An Extraordinary Accomplishment

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law!

--Katherine Lee Bates, 1893

The United States of America is an extraordinary accomplishment. It is the richest, most powerful nation that has ever existed. From a handful of farmers and merchants on the edge of the known world, it has grown, endured, agonized and prospered. Millions have flocked to its shores, and millions more continuously hope to come. Saying that this has become something of a cliché does not make it any less true. Nor does the fact that some people in other parts of the world have come to resent the way America asserts its wealth and power make America's rise any less remarkable or significant. Even America's fiercest critics don't argue that.

But why did this success visit itself on the United States? Certainly it is a land blessed with enormous resources and intrepid people. They have been celebrated many times. But there are other nations with great resources and excellent people. Our purpose is to focus on something so apparent it is often underappreciated. America's extraordinary success is directly related to its unique form of government. Not just to its freedom or its democracy, but to its singularly American form of democracy.

Indeed, one of America's first and greatest inventions was the United States of America itself. This was something wholly new in the annals of government. There had been democracies before. There had been republics before. But what the framers invented was something no one had ever seen before.

They built a system of government entirely self-contained. They looked to neither God nor king for higher authority. This was, as they said, a government of "We the people." Every piece of it represented the people and drew its authority from the people, not, as for example in England, where the king or queen owed their power to the will of God, and the then powerful House of Lords to the lineage of its members.

But for government of the people to really work, the framers had to recognize what people were really like and then design a government around that reality. Through trial and spectacular error, they came to understand that anything less realistic was doomed to fail.

This, then, was their radical breakthrough: their recognition that government had to be designed around a cold-eyed acceptance of men as they really are, not as we might wish them to be. What was that cold-eyed view of human nature? They recognized that people pursue their own self-interests. And in this pursuit, they often regard what is good for them as good for all.

Other political thinkers had, of course, noticed this from time to time before the American Revolution. But before America, proponents of democracy (when they could be found) generally solved the problem of selfishness by suggesting that citizens could rise above their own interests to join in achieving some larger good that they would recognize through reasoning together.

Copyright © 2007 Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes