Last week the Washington Post ran a provocative essay by the Ontario writer and retailer Paul Pirie arguing that the American Revolution was “a flop,” not achieving what the Declaration of Independence set out as its goals—or at least not achieving those goals as well as some other democratic nations today (not least of which is Canada).
Pirie noted that the U.S. of A., despite being founded with the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” today:
- ranks 51st in the world in life expectancy at birth.
- has far more of its population in prison than any other large democracy.
- guarantees fewer benefits and protections for workers, and has a life-satisfaction measure behind Australia and, yes, Canada.
I agree with Pirie that Americans have a tendency to overlook how many other nations have produced peaceful, prosperous democracies with rights for their citizens and good services for their children even though they aren’t American. Some have even done so while keeping vestiges of monarchy, which the American Revolution threw off. Some have chosen democracy under much harsher economic and geographic circumstances than the U.S.
Over the past century few of of those nations have followed our Constitution’s model. In particular, most have chosen parliamentary systems over our form of separated, overlapping, and often conflicting powers.
But in other important respects those nations have been inspired by the U.S. We Americans may be too wedded to provisions in a Constitution written over two hundred years ago by men who didn’t agree on its meaning then and couldn’t conceive of how we live today, but most nations since 1789 have seen the value of having a written national constitution. Finite terms for elected officeholders, judges empowered to overturn unconstitutional laws, and stated individual rights are other ideas the American republic worked out for the world.
Indeed, the very idea of a large republic of diverse interests was revolutionary. As scholars at the “American Revolution Reborn” conference discussed at length this spring, the American Revolution inspired many others in the following decades, including the French and Haitian revolutions of the late 1700s and the South American revolutions of the early 1800s. The example of the American republic spurred reformers in Britain, and even Canada.
Would, for example, Denmark or South Korea or Costa Rica or even Canada be as democratic as they are today if the U.S. of A. hadn’t been founded as it was in the late eighteenth century? It’s impossible to say one way or the other. History doesn’t allow for controlled experiments of that sort. But if the American Revolution had indeed “flopped,” as Pirie suggested, the world—and even Canada—might look very different today.