After years of trying to seek an equitable way to resolve their differences, on July 4, 1776 a group of fifty-six men wrote a letter to King George, listing twenty-seven grievances they claimed justified them declaring their independence from his rule. Then, after seven long years of war with England, Americans were able to finally become a free people.
But once they became free the most immediate question they had to answer was: How do we govern ourselves?
Before the war began they had already established a form of government that operated according to the Articles of Confederation but it soon became apparent that this method of governing had some serious problems. Therefore, in May 1787 delegates from nearly all the thirteen colonies assembled in Philadelphia to find a way to improve upon these articles.
However, after four or five weeks of debating without achieving any success in deciding what kind of government they should have, Benjamin Franklin stood and addressed the delegates. In that address he warned them that unless they could find a way to resolve their differences that "mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing government by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest."
What these men were attempting to do was devise some sort of government whereby the people could govern themselves without being subjected to the dictates of a supreme ruler, such as a king. However, what they were seeking to accomplish was something that had almost never been successfully done in nearly all of recorded human history. The question that Franklin posed was: Is it possible for man to rule himself or is man the kind of creature who must have someone else rule over him? In other words, is the average man capable of making thoughtful decisions for himself or must he yield his will to someone who is wiser and knows better what is good for him?
The first recorded government is that of the family where the father was the head of the clan and his word was law. Before long, this same kind of government was used to rule over a tribe of people and each tribe had its own leader who came to power either by lineage or through force. The first great civilization was Egypt whose government operated according to the will of one supreme ruler known as a Pharaoh who initially came to power by uniting all the various tribes in the region under his leadership. While they enjoyed a certain amount of freedom they were not free to govern themselves/.
At the time when the Israelites lived among the Egyptians, there were many city-states located across the Sinai desert from Egypt. Each of these cities were like small nations with each of them ruled over by a king, again showing that, instead of living as freemen, the people in these cities were required to live according to the dictates of someone who ruled over them.
Instead of these city-states living in harmony with one another, they fought wars of conquest in an effort to overthrow one another's king and bring even more people under the control of one person. When the Israelites entered the land that God had promised to their father, Abraham, they too conquered the people who occupied the area, such as the Moabites, Canaanites, Ammonites, Philistines, and others. While they lived in Egypt, they were slaves but when they left they did so under the leadership of one man named Moses whom set the rules by which this band of former slaves would live. When Moses died, a man named Joshua took his place as the supreme leader of the Israelites.
But once the Israelites had settled into their newly conquered territory, and after Joshua had died, they established the first recorded government of self-rule which was called the period of the judges. Under this form of government, the Israelites had no central leader but instead followed a central law that God had given to Moses a half a century earlier. Under this law people ruled themselves and those who violated the standards of this society could be brought before judges who determined the guilt or innocence of those accused and proscribed the punishment for those convicted of crimes.
However, in time, the Israelites tired of ruling themselves and asked to have a king like those of all other nations around them. But once they established a kingdom they never again returned to ruling themselves. Instead, they engaged in wars of conquest, especially under their king, David, who expanded his kingdom, taking possessions of land and people and bringing them under his control.
Yet, in time, the Israelites would themselves be defeated in battle by King Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the mighty Babylonian Empire and were brutally subjected to his power. However, even he was defeated by a king from Persia name Cyrus. Not long after this, a Greek general by the name of Alexander waged war against most of the nations in the known world at that time, bringing all its people under his rule. After his death the Roman Empire began their conquest of all the land held by the Greeks, thereby bringing it under their control.
The history of Europe after the fall of Rome is one of constant battle between kingdoms. In Mongolia around 1200 A.D., the people lived in tribes, with each one ruled over by man known as a khan. Under his direction, they raided each other's villages but in 1206 a Mongol warrior name Temujun was able to unite all the warring tribes and bring them his autocratic control. This made him the supreme ruler or, as he was called in the Mongolian language, he became the Genghis Khan. Under his command he led his people in war against kingdoms all around Mongolia and after his death his sons continued their father's conquests until they had created an empire that was larger than what the Romans had built.
Throughout history the titles people have used for their supreme ruler - such as king, emperor, sultan, Kaiser, premier, president, dictator, the leader (Il Duce, in Italian, Der Fuher in German), warlord, etc. - have been different but their power has always been the same. They made the laws by which their people were expected to live and which the people themselves had very little to say when it came to determining what those laws would be. Thus, they did not rule themselves but, instead, were ruled over by someone else.
There are basically two kinds of self-governments - a democracy and a republic - and both have been tried at various times in history. A democracy is where the people themselves vote to decide on what their laws will be and the decision is made by a majority vote. A republic has been described as a representative democracy where the people elect someone to represent them and then it is the representatives who gather together to vote on the laws they want.
In the beginning, the Romans had a republican form of government but it wasn't long before it turned into a dictatorship with one man becoming the Cesar, or Emperor. During the French Revolution of 1792, the people overthrew the rule of their king and set up a republican form of government but within ten years Napoleon was able to overthrow it and install himself as their Emperor. After World War I the German people took control of their country from the Kaiser and set up a republican form of government but a little more than a decade later Adolf Hitler took control of the government and became its dictatorial leader. And this pattern has been repeated countless times.
As the American delegates met in the Spring of 1787 to determine what kind of government they wanted to create, they were very much acquainted with the history of past governments and were acutely aware that history had shown that man's quest to govern himself had never proved successful. In fact, the prevailing sentiment has always been that the average man, because of his ignorance and selfish nature, is incapable of governing himself. If left to his own judgment, he would only create chaos, therefore, to bring about stability and order in a society, it has always been believed that the average person must depend on someone with more intelligence, stronger force of personality, superior administrative skills, and greater wisdom to make the important decisions for him.
Yet, in 1787 Americans wanted to rule themselves. Like societies before them, they had just thrown off someone they felt was an unjust ruler and were not anxious to replace him with another dictator. But the question the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention had to answer was: How could they successfully govern themselves when it had never been done before? That's why they referred to the Constitution they crafted as the great experiment in liberty because they weren't sure if people could be governed by common consent rather than through coercion and force.
Many people have pointed to the system of checks and balances in our Constitution as the reason why our government has been as successful as it has but this method has been tried in other countries without achieving the same results. An example of this is in Iraq. After American troops were able to dispose Saddam Hussein, they helped the Iraqis form their own democratic government based on the U.S. model.
But, despite all the assistance that was given, their government is almost non-functioning because of bitter religious and cultural disagreements, and the same situation exists in Afghanistan after the U.S. military ousted the Taliban government. During the French Revolution of 1792, the people crafted a Constitution that was inspired by the one America had created but it didn't work for them.
The obvious question is: Why does self-government work in America but doesn't in most other countries and why is it working now when for nearly six thousand years it hasn't? It's certainly not because Americans are somehow a different breed of humans or because our country possesses natural resources, climate, or geography that others don't have, and it isn't because we desire freedom more than anyone else. In fact, freedom is a universal quality that nearly all humans have a natural desire for.
The answer to why Americans have successfully learned how to rule themselves is found in the art of baking.
Whether someone wants to bake bread or make different kinds of cookies, the basic ingredients are all the same - flour, sugar, salt, butter or oil, yeast or baking powder, and water. The difference between bread and various types of cookies has to do with the proportions in which these basic ingredients are put together. And the same is true of self-government. Everyone has a desire to be free of coercion and to rule their own life but for that to happen there is a formula that must be followed if the outcome is to be successful and it wasn't until the great American experiment that our Founding Fathers were able to find the proper formula.
When you mix flour and water together in the rightr proportion, you end up with a thick, pasty dough which, when baked, makes bread. On the other hand, if you add too much flour you end up with a dry, powdery substance that doesn't make anything when heated, while if you add too much water, you end up with a soupy, runny mix that makes nothing when heated. And no matter how much sugar, salt, butter, and yeast is added, if the flour and water mixture is not right you will not have bread.
For people to govern themselves there are basic ingredients that must come together in the right proportions and two of those ingredients are crucial. They are responsibility and moral values. Without these there can be no freedom.
If a person lived all by themselves in the wilderness with no one to tell them what to do, they would automatically find themselves in a position where they had no other choice than to care for themselves. Thus, the responsibility to feed, clothe, and house themselves would be theirs alone. But when a person feels that someone else is responsible for providing their needs then, of necessity, they must give up some of their freedom and become at least partially obedient to someone else. And the more dependent a person becomes on someone else, the less freedom they have. Therefore, in order for man to govern himself, he must be willing to take responsibility for his own needs and his own behavior.
The next thing that is needed is moral values. Values are the attitudes we have toward the world around us and what determine how we behave towards others, while morals is what give us a proper sense of right and wrong. Thus, to have moral values is to have a proper and honorable attitude toward the world. For example, a moral value says that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. Therefore, when we respect the rights of others then we are behaving according to a moral value.
Since no one truly lives all by them self, all of us have to give up some freedom in order to exist together in a community, but finding the right mix of freedom and subservience can be a difficult balance because too much freedom leads to chaos while too much subservience leads to slavery. However, without the essential ingredient of high moral values, no society can survive for very long. The greater the amount of moral values that a society has the greater the chances are of it holding together because this is the glue that binds people to one another and allows them to work together for the good of their society.
The reason why self-rule is so hard to achieve in places like Iraq or Afghanistan is because of the values its people have. Although they are willing to take responsibility for themselves, for centuries they have been raised on the values of distrust, anger, and hostility towards anyone who thinks, behaves, or believes differently than them. For example, many in that part of the world are taught from childhood that killing someone who has offended you is an honorable thing to do. Therefore, because their mix of responsibility and moral values is out of proportion to one another, they aren't able to achieve the freedom that Americans enjoy.
Unfortunately, Americans are becoming more and more dependent on their government to provide for their needs and their values are becoming less and less moral. Like the people in Iraq, Americans are tending to reject the morals that their American forefathers held and are replacing them with values that do little to bring people together. If this trend continues, we will see the same kind of divisive behavior that is tearing other nations apart. People will become more easily provoked with one another, more prone to anger, and more susceptible to violence. And as they do, the less responsibility they take for their actions and the more they depend on someone else to solve the problem for them. This is what happened during the French Revolution that lead to "the reign of terror."
Should we as a nation ever get to the point where we are incapable of governing ourselves, there will someone more than eager to step forth and take control of us, just like what has always happened in the past. And when they do they must, of necessity, impose strict rules. When that happens we will lose all of our freedom and revert to becoming a nation of slaves. And once our freedom is gone, history has proven that it is extremely rare that people ever get it back again. As Joshua said, "Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be free from being bondmen"
However, it doesn't have to end like this, but the only way to prevent our nation from going down the path to some form of a dictatorship is for people to once more learn how to take responsibility for themselves and to practice the values of high morals. This is the only way we can keep alive what our Founding Fathers called the great experiment.