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Revolutionary Nation

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Getty File
Getty File

The United States of America was born in revolution and we maintain the republic through
revolution. Jefferson described his election in 1800 as the second American Revolution, albeit a
more peaceful one. Some of our revolutions have been political, such as the populism of Andrew Jackson or the conservatism of the "Reagan Revolution." Some have been technological,
like the 19th-century revolution in communications and transportation that linked the country
with telegraph wire and railroad tracks. Still others have been social, such as the Civil Rights
Movement of the 20th century. No matter what the generation, Americans have found themselves in the throes of constant change.

That spirit of change and innovation -- that spirit of revolution is found in the stories of
individuals -- everyday people -- caught up in the American Revolution. Twenty-first-century
Americans looking back at the Revolution all too often think that the path towards independence was easy and obvious. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Citizens of our revolutionary era were never certain of the outcome. They, like us, arose every morning to engage the world as they found it, with all its uncertainty and challenge.

The accomplishments of the founding generation were spectacular, but I think their most
remarkable achievement was not the unification of the colonies. It was not the Declaration of
Independence or the Constitution. It was not the successful prosecution of the Revolutionary
War. More important than any of these, our founding generation created the "modern citizen."
They created a model for citizen engagement and responsibility that has fueled our republic
ever since. It was a great innovation. Philosophers had theorized that rights were vested in
individuals, not monarchs (the prevailing doctrine of the divine right of kings), but it was
Americans who put theory into practice in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. They
declared that they were not subjects of a monarch. Instead, the people were sovereign and the
government subject to "We the People."

The documents the founders created outlined these principles and laid out the structure and
process of government, but no founding document enumerated a citizen's responsibilities. No
document provided the secrets for effectively innovating solutions to the challenges confronting the citizen. There is only one place to discover answers to questions like these: history. The revolutionary generation understood that. They read ancient history -- the stories of Greece and Rome -- and they reveled in the successes of ancient heroes and found caution in the stories of man's failures and foibles. Twenty-first-century citizens must look to their history to meet the challenges of today.

American history is the stories of how citizens together met the challenges of their generation.
Some of those stories provide inspiration and evidence of how much "We the People" can
accomplish. Other stories are cautionary. Most important, American history is a story of a
great enduring debate, a debate designed to realize the ideals of the revolutionary generation.
Every generation struggles with the issues of their time: the economy, social change, the role of
religion, the defense of the republic, and the proper relationship of government to the people,
to name just a few. Citizens must explore these American history stories -- stories of history, citizenship, and democracy -- to understand our revolutionary ideals and how those ideals help us understand our responsibility as 21st-century citizens of the American republic.