My fellow Americans, on July 4th we gather to celebrate our country’s independence and pay homage to its founders. We remember this country began as a unique adventure in freedom, individual liberty and rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The United States is today the preeminent world power and beacon of freedom around the globe.
As we glory in America’s independence, we tend to overlook the second part of the independence equation: Great Britain. In declaring independence, we broke from British rule, while inventing a nation inspired by British ideas. It was Thomas Paine, an anti-monarchial Englishman, who urged the Americans to declare independence and sever ties with Britain in his 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense”.
Just seven months before the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, with Colonists already battling British forces, Thomas Jefferson, its principal author, wrote to an English friend, “Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.”
Jefferson’s love of Britain and passion for American independence sprang from the same sources. The works of English political philosopher John Locke supplied Jefferson with the arguments for inalienable natural rights, including those of property and the right to rebel against overreaching governments. Jefferson modified Locke’s phrase “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was Scottish philosopher Henry Home from whom Jefferson lifted the “pursuit of happiness.”
Free markets? Thank Adam Smith, another Scot. Limited government? An idea first established in the Magna Carta (1215), English common law and the English Bill of Rights (1689). Be grateful Jefferson was a voracious reader.
The Colonies did not bristle with discontent under British rule. The British treated their American subjects with what Edmund Burke called “salutary neglect”, allowing the Colonists to manage their society with little interference. The trifling duties imposed by Parliament, after the budget-busting Seven Years War, found disfavor with Colonists more as a breach of English Constitutional principles than for their rapacity.
The leaders of the American Revolution were wealthy landowners interested, not in demolishing existing institutions, but controlling them—an early form of hostile takeover. This was not a revolution to improve the lot of the masses, but to bolster the Colonial elite’s power and wealth.
The true revolution was not the Colonies’ insurrection against the Mother Country, but one of the ideas shipped over from Britain and brilliantly hybridized by the Founding Fathers. Our country’s core values—democracy, individual freedom, a free press, a constitution—were English imports, just like the infamous tea. Had the Brits imposed duties on political thought, the Colonists would have staged The Boston Idea Party.
This July 4th, eleven score and fourteen years after the Declaration of Independence, I propose that the United States join the Commonwealth of Nations, the federation of former and current Crown territories.
You may not know the Commonwealth. It’s not a military juggernaut like NATO; an exclusive club based on economic clout like the G8; nor a bureaucratic behemoth—of democracies, dictatorships and everything in-between—like the United Nations.
The Commonwealth is a “country club” we should belong to. The alliance of 54 sovereign nations—small, medium, large, rich and poor—is united by the ideals we share: democracy, liberty, the rule of law, equality and free trade.
Itself a democracy, the Commonwealth’s policies are created by consensus: no nation is more equal than any other. And their deliberations are conducted in English, the common language of the former British colonies. With members on all six inhabited continents, the sun never sets on the Commonwealth of Nations or its ideals.
As a plant breeder, I am keenly aware of the extraordinary outcomes that arise from crossing widely different strains. A successful hybrid plant demonstrates “hybrid vigor”: it’s healthier, hardier and more productive.
The same phenomenon is evident in culture, a word with roots in agriculture. Since 1776, we have gradually lost the receptivity to foreign ideas that helped inspire our country’s founding fathers. Just as Jefferson, a plant breeder himself, selected and adapted ideas from British philosophers and applied them to the Colonies, we can absorb and integrate the insights and ideas of our Commonwealth friends, and they ours.
For instance, throughout the former British Empire, people utilize the English language with a fluency, clarity and flair that Americans lack: it’s the difference between speaking and talking. Whether in Parliament, the press or the pub, Brits relish the sparky give-and-take of debate, repartee, and battle of wits, as do others in the Commonwealth states. In the U.S., verbal cleverness and wordplay are more despised than prized, and to our detriment.
So let’s break out our Latin schoolbooks, brush up our Shakespeare, sharpen our wits and join the scrum of liberal democracies that is the Commonwealth of Nations.
Jefferson would surely approve.
The above appeared in a shorter version in the Op/Ed section of The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 1, 2010.