The Greatest Political Phenomenon

Depiction of Joel Barlow.

On July 4, 1809, Joel Barlow, a diplomat and poet, gave a public speech about other Americans’ feelings about the country. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 469. It was his conclusion that America had moved past its infancy and was approaching adolescence and manhood. Id. Barlow concluded that “[t]here has been no nation either ancient or modern that could have presented human nature in the same character as ours does and will present it; because there has existed no nation whose government has resembled ours . . . a representative democracy on a large scale, with a fixed constitution.” Id. quoting Joel Barlow, Oration, Delivered at Washington, July Fourth, 1809; at the Request of the Democratic Citizens of the District of Columbia (Washington, DC, 1809), 3-6, 9.

Barlow also concluded that America was “the greatest political phenomenon, and probably will be considered as the greatest advancement in the science of government that all modern ages have produced.” Id.

Barlow’s words still ring true, after over two centuries of progress in America. This has been evidenced by many countries throughout the world modeling their governments after America, to varying success. While some may argue that other modern countries, especially India, have adopted a democratic system and have a fixed constitution, there is no question that the United States remains unique. Taking India as a modern example of a democracy, the comparison to America is striking. While there is an identifiable, significant middle-class in the United States, India has a yawning gap between the wealthiest and poorest. The “human nature in the same character as ours” that Barlow describes simply has not been surpassed since his bold pronouncement of those words.

There is a question as to whether the United States is the “greatest political phenomenon” that Barlow proclaims. While many countries have adopted systems similar to America, which seems to flatter the American system, the success of those countries has been apparently hindered by various external factors. Take, for example, Russia. Russia has adopted a democratic model of government in name, but rampant corruption and oligarchic tendencies have precluded Russia from ever rivaling the United States as a model of effective, transparent government.

Even looking to Europe, and its many effective states, no country in Europe has the population and acreage to be comparable to the United States. Taking Europe as a whole, economically it is similar to the United States, but obviously governmentally, each European nation has its own operational government. This precludes any effective comparison with Europe or its individual nations.

The sheer extent of the United States, combined with its prolonged success, seems to bring wisdom to Barlow’s prescient words. Whether Barlow predicted the success of America merely by luck or not, his words underlie those famous words of Abraham Lincoln: that the United States is the last best hope of Earth.

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