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Born in the U.S.A.

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Writing earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times in celebration of the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, Yale Law Professor Akhil Reed Amar points out just how extraordinary and influential an event the creation of our Constitution was–and is. He writes:

On Sept. 16, 1787, kings, czars, sultans, princes, emperors, moguls, feudal lords and tribal chieftains dominated most of Earth’s landmass and population. Wars and famines were commonplace. So it had always been. Democracies had existed in a few old Greek and Italian city-states, but most of these small-scale republics had winked out long before the American Revolution. While Britain had a House of Commons and a broad-based jury system, hereditary British kings and lords still retained vast powers. A small number of Swiss yeomen governed themselves, and the Dutch republic was on its last legs. That was about it for democracy in the world.

Today, roughly half the planet lives under democracy of some sort. What happened to precipitate this stunning global transformation?

Here’s what. On Sept. 17, 1787, a small cluster of American notables who had been meeting behind closed doors in Philadelphia went public with an audacious proposal. The plan, signed by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and 37 other leading statesmen, began as follows: “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” […]

Shortly after the people convened in 1787-88 to say “Yes, we do,” Americans fashioned a Bill of Rights to fix some of the biggest bugs of Constitution 1.0. In effect, the document was crowd-sourced by the people themselves. Unsurprisingly, no phrase appeared more often in the Bill of Rights than “the people.” Later amendments carried forward this democratic momentum, repeatedly expanding but almost never limiting liberty and equality, and eventually welcoming blacks, women, young adults and unpropertied Americans as equal democratic participants.

In short, the extraordinary democratic momentum generated by the votes and voices of 1787-88 has continued to propel America forward over the ensuing decades and centuries.

And not just America. The world is now far more democratic than ever, thanks largely to the ideological, economic and military success of the United States, which has proved that democracy can work on a geographic and demographic scale never previously thought possible.

Why should we care about democracy’s spread? For starters, because no well-established democracy in the modern era has ever reverted to despotism. Modern mature democracies have not waged war against one another or experienced widespread famine.

This still-young modern world was, in effect, born in the U.S.A., and this miraculous birth began exactly 225 years ago. Happy birthday, America. Happy birthday, world.

Read the whole thing, and check out our own celebration of Constitution Day here.