“There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.”
— Benjamin Rush 1787
What should we do with Rush’s remarks, given in Philadelphia nine months before the Constitution was created? Perhaps the better question is what have we done with Rush’s remarks? They certainly run counter to the dominant contemporary American appropriation of the revolution.
A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush offers a much more nuanced understanding of the revolution — one that cannot be condensed into names and dates, which are more appropriate for rote memorization than civic benefit.
Should the Revolution be truncated into a brief odyssey that includes a memorable destruction of the East India Company’s entire shipment of tea into Boston Harbor, a Declaration of Independence and a war of attrition that concluded with an armistice with the British Empire?
This, obviously, is an oversimplification, but it bears more resemblance to the story America has chosen to remember than the version Rush articulates. Rush offers a perspective about the nation’s original mission that has been either forgotten or ignored. It is inconceivable that the Declaration can simultaneously serve as a radical idea undergirded by liberty and equality, while moonlighting as a sophomoric fable.
Rather than classifying the war as “The American Revolution,” suppose it was defined and embraced by a larger audience as the “war for independence”? More than semantic jiu-jitsu, it becomes a redefinition as to how the America’s radical undertaking is understood and applied in a contemporary sense. This distinction removes the timeline on the Revolution from a historical event that concluded in 1783 to an ongoing drama that continues to be fueled into the present day, known as the American Experiment.
Over a short time period, there was an amazing transformation from loyal British colonists to revolutionaries to defining what it meant to be “Americans.” The postwar colonies viewed themselves more as individual nation states than a united entity. Given the doubt looming over the postwar mission, it should come as no surprise that many colonists would refer to the new government as an experiment.
Fears of central authority greatly neutered the effectiveness of the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, the states remained sovereign and independent, producing a weak central government. Rush’s remarks in Philadelphia were given at a time when clearly the Articles would not suffice.
Perhaps no word better underscores the American odyssey than “experiment.” It was indeed a procedure accepted by the people to test the hypothesis of liberty and equality. Rush, in his remarks, took what the Founders created and gives a portion of its survival to all Americans living at the time and their posterity. Each generation is entrusted with sustaining the “idea,” Knight Templars by birth or naturalized citizenship to protect democracy.
The war was a conduit that fueled the transformation from oppressed British subjects to Americans beholden to the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Rush is offering that the war proved to be the easy part of the initiative, but the revolution continues. It is a never-ending struggle to make good on America’s unprecedented undertaking.
But the experiment that offered judicious research and well-thought-out design has proven more difficult than what the writers of the Federalist Papers could conceive. The testing of a democratic republic that initially appeared straightforward has proven far more complicated.
The experiment is currently undergoing a new series of tests. Can it endure when the democratic guardrails are treated as optional? Is the subjective feeling of being right superior to our democratic foundations? Can it survive when political leadership enacts transactional policies with no regard for the cyclical nature of politics, as it ignores constitutional norms?
At its best, the experiment challenges each of us to find some measure of comfort within the discomfort of ambiguity. A nation founded on notions of liberty and equality must be stretched periodically to the point of discomfort if it is to advance.
Like jazz, the experiment is truly an American creation, complete with syncopation and improvisation. Both are nonpareil projects that swing, scat and innovate. They are indefinable works of unadulterated genius.
The experiment’s greatest moments, like its musical counterpart, have been realized in its willingness to risk mistakes, pushing beyond its stated boundaries to discover something new; and the founding documents serve as the permanent liner notes.
But Rush’s closing remarks from his 1787 address remain true and inspirational today: “The revolution is not over!”