Proclaiming a “New Order of the Ages” may seem like a pretentious and overly idealistic pronouncement for the founding motto of a troubled, upstart little republic who had just broken away from the English crown. But one thing is certain and bears remembering, especially in our current time of questioning concerning the role of the United States in the world:
Regardless of what its detractors may say, the founding of the United States of America was an important step in the evolution of human society on Earth.
Now, to put this into the proper context, we do need to remember that the United States didn’t invent the idea of freedom. It didn’t even originate the concept of a democracy or even of a democratic republic. The founders of the United States of America built upon an ancient and well-known history of these ideas. But the establishment of the United States of America, and especially and more specifically, the U.S. Constitution, was a major turning point in the history of the world. It was a bold experiment in turning away from an old order that had held sway over the majority of the nations of mankind for the vast majority of the history of human civilization. In very important ways, it actually was the dawn of what its founders envisioned as a New Order of the Ages.
But if a republic was such an ancient concept at the time of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the others, what was so revolutionary about the founding of the United States of America?
The “Old Order”
Yes, various democratic and republican experiments had been tried down through the centuries. The Founders had the benefit of ancient history from old Greece and Rome and even contemporary examples in some of the indigenous tribes and nations of North America. But democratic rule and rights of individual people were not the way of the main stream of most of history. The creation of the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution marked the first time in human history that these concepts were laid down as the founding documents of a nation.
We take much for granted in modern America. It is easy to be unaware of the fact that, not only in vast ages of the past, but even still today there are many places in the world in which the recognition that common people inherently have rights is amazingly absent from society.
In order to understand just how radically new and different the “New Order of the Ages” was only 200 years ago, we need to make an effort to consider what the “old order” of society had been for previous unknown thousands of years. Because sitting in our comfy homes with our laptops or big-screen TV’s or kicking back at the local bistro or bar, having a beer and browsing the internet on our iPhones (or Android devices), it’s easy to lose touch with the conditions that our ancestors would have considered “normal” in their lives and world.
Taking an occasional look back is important because, since the “old order” had been the natural state of human society for most of our history, if we do not take care, we may find it more easy than we’d like to admit to lapse (or, rather, let our governments lapse) back into the old ways.
Consider this: You’re sitting there, writing (or perhaps just reading) that blog (or newsletter or pamphlet) that has been criticizing the current leadership of the country, or even your local town mayor. Then, all of a sudden, the police come barging through your front door to confiscate your laptop (or printing press) and drag you out into the street, put you in chains, and haul you away to jail, all just because of what you dared to write or read. It’s a horrifying scene from your favorite dystopian SciFi movie, right? Maybe. But it’s also what you could expect as a normal act by the government in many countries of the world only a few hundred years ago, or in many places just a few decades ago (Berlin in 1938; and again in 1961; Czechoslovakia in 1968; Tiananmen Square in 1989) and in too many places even today (Pyongyang, Havana, Tehran, and even Riyadh.)
It’s difficult to realize, sitting here in our relatively open and free society, that the normal order of society for many centuries, was that the King (or emperor or sultan or oligarchy or even church) reigned supreme, even, in many times and places, to the point of effectively having ownership over the “common” people. The king ascended to his position and ruled by “Divine Right” or for a coercively implemented ideology or due to just plain military strength. His throne was sacred. And his power over many of the activities in the lives of the people was nearly absolute. Such people are subjects of the ruling authority, not citizens of a nation.
In much of human history, just as in the animal kingdom, the natural order of things is that “might makes right;” the strong dominate; and those in charge rule solely by the authority of their own strength. And, historically, laws have often been sets of proclamations and commandments, handed down from on high, often with those in charge claiming Divine Authority for their edicts.
Regardless of the “self-evident” nature that Thomas Jefferson claimed for the notion in the Declaration of Independence, it first required a revolution in thought for the idea of the inherent rights of the common man to be written into the founding documents of a nation. That revolution in thought is commonly referred to as “The Enlightenment.”
This was the period of European and American history spanning the century or so before the American revolution. It was a time in which scientific discoveries and technological inventions, such as the telescope and various mechanical and navigational devices, and the vistas of exploration and knowledge that these devices began to open up, prompted people to question some of the old long-accepted dogma of traditional religion and the old philosophies and modes of government. At the same time, growing economic prosperity, driven in large measure by an expanding network of worldwide trade made practical by those same technological inventions, allowed particularly inquisitive and energetic people to have the time and resources to research, examine, and consider the implications of those things that they were able to discover.
Freedom of thought — the most important freedom of all — was starting to emerge in a way that it had not done for many previous centuries.
My mind is my church.Thomas Paine
In: The Age of Reason
Along with scientific discoveries, philosophical transformation, and technological innovation, the Enlightenment also ushered in an age of social revolution in Europe and America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the time leading up to the American struggle for independence in the 1770’s and 1780’s.
Credit for the change in philosophy and general attitude of the times is often given to the development of the scientific method, which took root in the Western world starting with the works of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and others. But the revolutionary changes of this era had at least as much to do with economic development as they did with scientific explorations and discoveries.
Yes, the scientific method ushered in a technological and scientific boom. The renaissance saw the invention of the telescope and the conflict with old dogmas that its invention precipitated. But, perhaps even more importantly with regard to the evolution of society as a whole, it also saw the development of the printing press and more sturdy and technologically advanced ships, and an increase in and greater distribution of both physical wealth and a wealth of ideas than had occurred in ages past.
Of course there continued to be territorial wars, with countries and factions still vying for dominance over ever greater areas of the world. But the fact that the players on the world stage were increasingly powerful nations fighting about dominance over far flung lands and not merely local tribes and principalities with their local squabbles over their homes also meant that, in many ways, especially in the homelands of those nations, there was greater stability than there had been in the past. By contrast, in previous ages, even when empires such as Rome had arisen, they had always held onto their territories with a tenuous grip, with barbarian tribes continually gnawing away at their possessions and at the organization of their civilization.
Free thought can be a luxury to people who are merely struggling to survive. But globalization of the economy and the increase in wealth and stability that came with it in the renaissance era also meant the start of the globalization of knowledge and philosophy. A greater degree of wealth, especially bolstered by increasingly more open communication, enabled the luxury of free thought by ever greater numbers of people. And so, the ability to think globally in social terms began to evolve along with ability to ponder the universe in scientific terms.
The World is my country,
all mankind are my brethren,
and to do good is my religion.Thomas Paine
Fundamental roots of The Enlightenment
Even as we look back upon the intellectual and social revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries as a turning point for society at large, we realize that it was a manifestation of something deeply seated in mankind’s fundamental nature with long roots in past ages.
People, by nature, are individual, freely thinking entities. And the general trend of the evolution of mankind and society has been for that part of our nature to express itself more and more throughout the ages. We each have our own individual thoughts, feelings, and ambitions. This, at our core, is what drives us and our activities. Every new enterprise, every invention, every advance in philosophy, every development of society has been the result of the work of individual minds. And so, the recognition of the rights of the individual human being that we see as a “new order” in society really is the result of the blossoming of something that has always been within us as a fundamental quality of our inherent nature as individuals.
But this “new order” has also always been a danger to the “old order” of exclusive, top-down, authoritarian command and control of society and those who enjoy their status in the higher ranks of that order.
Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Persian, and Arabic cultures and others all had their “Golden Ages” of enlightenment, relatively open and free thought, and in some cases, even experimentation with democracy. But, even though each of these ages was strong and vibrant in its own way in its own time, each of them eventually subsided, often violently and under the weight of authoritarian oppression. And, more often than not, that oppression was home-grown and not a result of an invading army.
So, even though we now have rights codified in the founding documents of our nation, eternal vigilance is required in order to not only see that those rights are protected for our society, but that they are recognized for what they are as derived from an inherent part our fundamental nature as human beings.
“… to secure these rights …”
And that is the purpose of the famous introductory paragraph from our Declaration of Independence: to not only recognize the derivation of the rights of individual human beings, but to declare definitively that to recognize and protect those rights is the fundamental purpose of a valid and just government.
Let’s take a look at the full set of Jefferson’s “self evident” truths in their full context; not only the often quoted first three, but also the last two which, in reality, convey the main point of the statement:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
That all men are created equal,
That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness —
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
And That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.Declaration of Independence of the United States of America
In this single statement of five truths, it is the last two which call into practical application the first three in the founding of the government. And, as such, it is these last two truths which embody the full expression in the practical world of the ideals of the Enlightenment: That the foundational purpose of government is to protect the fundamental rights of individual members of society. And that it is the right of The People to not only run that government, but to abolish it if necessary in order to put in place a more appropriate and just government.
Of course, this was not a magic formula. A perfect society did not suddenly spring into existence because of this proclamation. But it was, and continues to be, a step on the path of the evolution of human society the importance of which it is difficult to overestimate.
And just as we recognize that there was still a lot of work to do in bringing into reality the ideals of human rights in the 18th century when these words were first penned, it is obvious that there is still yet a lot to do both to promote ideals for our society and to secure those rights and freedoms that we have.
The government that was founded for the express purpose of securing life, equality, and opportunity for individual citizens is made up of and operated by mortal, corruptible human beings. That government itself has become more powerful than any force that would have even been imaginable by the men who first created it. And, as much as that federated power has been used to promote freedom and equality, powerful forces are at work, and very likely always will be, to use its power to more selfish ends.
It has been now just a little over two hundred years — a scant 10 generations of humanity — since these ideas were first put onto paper in this form. And those ten generations have seen some tremendous struggles: the industrial revolution, the abolition of slavery, the promotion of workers’ rights, the prosperity of capitalism, wars, and fights for equal treatment under the law. Society is constantly in a state of evolution and change and has been for many thousands of years.
And in the midst of all of the turmoil, struggle, and especially with the increasingly powerful nature of the government that the people have created for themselves, it would be easy for society to fall back into the “old order” of things. All it would take is for a few generations to become complacent with regard to what we have achieved and simply be content to let those who are in charge do as they please with a blind eye turned to the good of society and the world around us. And some people make the case that we have already traveled dangerously far down that road — or that we never really advanced toward full achievement of our natural rights in the first place.
So, with many powerful and potentially pernicious forces around us, each working for their own selfish ends, we must always keep in mind that it requires effort and awareness on the part of the people to keep our ability to exercise the rights and freedoms that are in our nature to have.