CHAPTER ONE, Part A: The First Experiment


“The event of our experiment is to show whether man can be trusted with self-government. The eyes of the suffering humanity are fixed on us with anxiety as their only hope, and on such a theater for such a cause we must suppress all smaller passion and local consideration.” (1)                                                                                                                               -- Thomas Jefferson, 1801


“The full experiment of government democratical, but representative, was and still is reserved for us.” (2)                                                                                  -- Thomas Jefferson, 1816


“The science of government, like all other sciences, is the best pursued by observation and experiment.” (3)                                                                                              -- John Adams, 1772




            In September 1796, George Washington published in the American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia his “Farewell Address” to the people of the United States. His purpose was to decline to run for a third term and to leave for prosperity a statement, in a plain and simple style, of the principles that had guided him in the discharge of his office.

            In this manuscript, prepared with the help of James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, Washington used the term “experiment” four times. He referred to the necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power as established by experiment. (4) He cited the cultivation of peace and harmony with all nations through the observance of good faith, justice, and virtue as an “experiment recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature.” (5) And, in speaking of the utility of government which brought the colonies together as one people, he hoped it would be an experiment with a happy issue. He then added, by way of emphasis, “Tis well worth a fair and full experiment.”(6) As a citizen, as a general, and as a president, Washington was determined the American experiment should have a fair trial and declared he was prepared to lose the last drop of his blood in its support. (7)

            During the period of time the United States was being formed into a nation, the new Republic was on many occasions described as an experiment. The original Thirteen Colonies had a way of doing things that was in tune with the scientific spirit of the times. The ideas in question were accepted by a sufficient number of influential people in America to make the experiment worth a try. The Revolutionary War was fought for the right to make this test and the sacrifices people made demonstrated the depth of their commitment. In this challenging manner, the history of the United States began.

            Democratic Republics, of course, had been tried before, usually with a brief period of success followed by dismal failure. From these unhappy results, the whole idea of vesting the supreme power of government in “majority” rule had fallen into disgrace in the minds of many molders of thought. Majority rule, to them, meant mob rule where the less competent were in charge.

However, in the Thirteen Colonies, conditions were different. Theories were more mature and safeguards were planned to guard against the weaknesses that were assumed to have caused the downfall of older attempts at democratic republics. The people with the dominating power felt the time had come to try again, not the old experiment that had failed, but a new experiment in a fresh idea of representative democracy that would bring to the world a better and more just way for human beings to live together. It was an idea with many unique features and the people of that time believed it deserved a full and fair test.

            Now (1975), almost 200 years later, the “new” experiment is old and we, in this nation, are involved in a thought provoking re-assessment of the results of the original idea. Many persons of influence have initiated changes that reject basic assumptions of the now old experiment as expressed by the men of George Washington’s time and which, by their adoption, assert that those older beliefs are no longer worth retaining. Another segment of the nation believes the experiment, as a whole, has succeeded and the essence of the original ideal should be preserved. The former seem to be implying that, in fundamental assumptions, the experiment has been a failure and needs revision, perhaps radical revision. The latter insist the essence of the experiment is good and should be preserved. The resulting conflict creates a fundamental division in the nation and the way it is resolved will determine the future course of government in this country.

            A reassessment of the experiment praised by George Washington is a natural, healthy development. A conflict of opinion over the results of the experiment and over the fairness of the trial is normal and to be expected. What is surprising, however, is that despite advances in knowledge, scholarship and years of experience, there is still no consensus as to the basic nature of that experiment. We, of the present generation, are engaged in the dubious process of deciding whether the experiment has failed or succeeded without first taking time to discover, or rediscover, what the experiment was. No wonder we find ourselves confused.

            The experiment begun by United States Founders was, on the surface, a multi-faceted affair. Some civil aspects under consideration were: the division of government into legislative, judicial, and executive, strong limitations of power, the division of the legislature into a house and a senate, states rights, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the Bill of Rights. These were some of the more evident parts of the new government. Many of these issues could be considered as experiments in their own right. But, most Americans feel there is something more to the experiment than any one of these judicial parts. There is a deeper thought that binds the county together and forms the basic idea conceived by the men who shaped a dissentient people into a nation. 

            As our country develops, if we are to understand and appreciate the consequences of radically revising fundamental assumptions, the essence of the original American experiment needs to be more adequately stated and affirmed. This book is designed to contribute to such an occurrence and will do so by defending the belief that the essence of the U.S. American experiment, which cemented together all the other aspects mentioned above, was a specific idea of reason based on a clear understanding of virtue. The American experiment was, at the core of it, an experiment in a commonly accepted idea of good judgment and right reason.  



























 [MC1]Consider revising. Long sentence.