Last Best Hope of Earth

A Blog Covering US History and Politics



Decline and Decay

Washington, D.C., 1871.

In the late 1790s, Constantin Francois Volney published Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolution of Empires, one of the most popular publications of its day. This publication not only attacked monarchical tyranny, but it reinforced amongst Americans ideals familiar to Americans then and now: that nations are fragile and seem to inevitably decay and decline. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 552.

This keen awareness to the “mortality of all states” reinforced Americans’ “desire to build in stone and marble and to create depositories in order to leave to the future durable monuments of America’s cultivation and refinement.” Id.

Further, Comte de Volney’s book hinted that “an uncorrupted republican government might evade the decline and decay that had beset all other governments.” Id. citing Constantin Francois Volney, A New Translation of Volney’s Ruins; or, Meditations on the Revolution of Empires (Paris, 1802).

There are two points of analysis from the popularity of Comte de Volney’s book in the years of the early Republic.

First, this book and underlying American beliefs combined to form the nearly uniform desire for America to not just be a powerful country in the modern world but to perpetuate itself and to be in the annals of the world as one of the most extraordinary countries to have existed. From the beginning, Americans have been keen on memorializing its most important buildings to stand the test of time. This is most obviously evidenced in the government buildings both on the federal and state levels. Washington DC itself is testament to America’s desire to build a legacy to last.

Second, Comte de Volney’s book reinforces the notion that nearly all Americans share: that somehow, the United States can avoid inevitable decline. In support of that hope, many look to the fact that in the history of the world, there has never been such a democracy on the scale of the United States with the emphasis on rights and values that characterize America. On the other side of the argument, many would argue that success breeds complacency which breeds inefficiency, leading to decline.

The truth about decline is probably somewhere in between the two positions. Neither success nor decline is inevitable, particularly in light of the fact that America’s model has never been tested before.

The words of George Washington could not be truer: “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” George Washington, January 9, 1790. That experiment is ongoing and hopefully will be for many centuries to come.


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.

The Last Best Hope of Earth

Abraham Lincoln – Gettysburg Address

This blog is intended to capture the spirit of the words of Abraham Lincoln in his December 1, 1862 address to Congress amidst the Civil War: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” These words reflect the optimism for America’s future, the uniqueness of America’s role in the world, and the direness of the Civil War. These words are also highly contextual, as likely few modern Americans would call the United States “the last best hope of earth.”

Nonetheless, by uncovering the past and juxtaposing it with contemporary events, this blog aspires to both inform and inspire the reader by showing that despite the doomsayers (modern and historical), the United States is not only mostly adhering to its founding principles but also on an upward trajectory, as it generally has been since its inception.

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