June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The bell is old and it is badly cracked and it has not been rung for years, nor will it ever be rung again. But although it is quite useless from a practical standpoint, it is perhaps the most prized possession we have. It carries words about proclaiming liberty to all the people, and when it spoke it set off long echoes that have never stopped reverberating. The Liberty Bell announced that the American people were in fact making a revolution and not just demonstrating for a redress of grievances, and few announcements in the history of the human race have been more momentous.
This year we who own the bell are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the independence which that bell proclaimed: the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, which is being observed in an infinite number of ways, some of them impressive, others rather regrettable, but all of them testifying to our belief that the occasion which is being celebrated was extremely important, to ourselves and to others. This belief is of course entirely justified, but the American revolution has dimensions that ought to get a great deal more consideration than we ordinarily give them. To name just two of them: it changed everything—and it is still going on.
At Yorktown, where a British army laid down its arms and surrendered its flags to confirm the reality of the assertion the Liberty Bell had made, a fife and drum corps played the British soldiers out to the surrender field, tootling a sprightly little tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Whether that particular song was chosen simply because it happened to be popular at the moment or because someone on the committee of arrangements had an inspiration, it was in the highest degree suitable. The world had indeed been turned upside down, not merely because certain restless colonies had broken away from the British Empire but because a new idea, of infinite scope, had been let loose in the world. A new idea, or a new possibility; say it as you choose, it makes no difference so long as the true nature of the change is understood. The men who proclaimed their freedom, and made it good by force of arms, had been fighting for a great deal more than simple political independence. They wanted no more of King George, of course, but they also wanted the kind of freedom that came into the front yard and the parlor and the kitchen of the ordinary human being. Men and women did not propose to be bossed around any longer, and at the same time they did not propose to go hungry or live in want or feel the restraints of a tightly ordered society whose classes and customs were fixed beyond change. They saw liberty not as a glorious abstraction but as something that began with what the citizen had for breakfast and went on to affect all of the homely concerns of everyday life.
Now this, to be sure, men have always wanted—political freedom blended with substantial material betterment. The thing to bear in mind is that in America, two hundred years ago, it was for the first time in history possible for people to get it. The world in which the American Revolution took place was at last a world in which men and women could actually have that kind of freedom if they wanted it enough to insist on it. The American people did want it enough, they did insist … and the world was turned upside down.
What turned it upside down was by no means the simple fact that the British king had lost some colonies. Far more important was the swift realization that man in free America could have a better, fuller, richer life than man could have elsewhere, partly because America was free but even more because it was America.
In America the hard constraints that had been inevitable elsewhere did not exist. For unending generations the civilized nations of the world—in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, wherever—had adjusted their societies to the grim fact that there was not quite enough of anything to go around. Not enough land, not enough food, not enough of the materials useful things are made of, not enough power to use those materials satisfactorily. In America, suddenly, men faced a world in which the reverse was true. The most powerful lure ever offered struggling man was here for the taking: certified abundance, enough of everything to go around, with no established proprietors to stand in the way or levy toll. People who had that were bound to establish their independence, and once they had done it the rest of the world was bound to look on and be affected.
Up to that time man supposed that he lived in an unchanging world in which his condition was fixed and his possibilities were limited. But the whole point of this American revolution was that there was going to be much change, that man’s condition was not fixed at all, and that the possibilities were wholly unlimited. This was not just because free America was blessed with an enormous quantity of natural resources; in the very act of exploiting those resources mercilessly, and building a society based on that exploitation, it was necessary to develop new techniques—to learn how to do more work with less effort, to make every resource go farther not because society is adjusted to scarcity but because it is adjusted to plenty.
When a society living so declares itself wholly independent and free from all of the old restraints, it declares for economic as well as political freedom, whether it intends it that way or not. In the famous declaration that was adopted two hundred years ago there was talk about man’s right to the pursuit of happiness, and the happiness therein mentioned involved food, housing, clothing, and other everyday concerns as well as the right to choose one’s own rulers, replace them when necessary, and in general have the final word about the policies and instruments by which government is to be carried on. American liberty has always been a very down-to-earth affair.
It worked out that way because the American political revolution coincided with the industrial revolution and influenced it profoundly.
It was sheer accident that it happened so, no doubt, but the results were far-reaching. The industrial revolution—the technological revolution, actually—meant something in America that it meant nowhere else. It took place in a loose, adaptable, uncontrolled society, which was not the case overseas, and the fruits that it bore were distributed in a different manner.
Say the worst that can be said about the evils of the machine age, early and late, in America; admit the social irresponsibility of the early captains of industry, the brutality with which the factory system ground men down and used them up, the way workers and consumers alike were ruthlessly exploited, the fact that technicians were forced to serve the greed of the entrepreneur rather than the greatest good of the greatest number—when all is said that can be said, the fact remains that what was done here meant, on the average and over the long pull, a more abundant life for all the people.
A few years ago when we were at war with Hitler, the American government tried to explain what was at stake and it dwelt largely on the Four Freedoms, mentioning one of them as freedom from want. Most Americans had had that freedom so long that they took it for granted, but many hundreds of millions of people on earth had never had it at all and had not supposed that they ever would have it, and the thought that they might get it after all had an explosive effect.
For in the years after the war ended the underprivileged people of the world found that it was at last possible for them to throw off the political bonds that had restrained them for so long, and they established themselves as free and independent nations—at which point this notion that political freedom ought to mean a more abundant life for the average man took hold of them and had earthshaking power. That notion was bound to take hold because it had become very clear that the country which had come closest to giving its people the more abundant life was also the country whose people had the most freedom. Precisely how these things were tied together—whether by someone’s wise intent, by the goodness of Providence, or by sheer accident—made no difference. Apparently they were two sides of one priceless coin, and necessitous people who have once glimpsed it are going to be eternally dissatisfied until they get it.
So what is happening in the world today may be frightening but it is extremely simple, and of all the people on earth we should most easily understand it. The American revolution is still going on—not because we ourselves are wise and good and helpful but because it embodies an idea that reaches everybody and will never lose its force.
Not the French revolution, which destroyed feudalism and remade the map of Europe and then became a starry remembrance of things past. Not the Marxist revolution, which offers to folk clambering out of the wreckage of colonialism a creed made for the last spasms of nineteenthcentury industrialism. The American revolution, which simply says that you do not have to have any foreigners on your back and that man’s vast new productivity can and must mean a vast increase in his ability to enjoy life. What really has the world by the ears is the growing realization that man does not have to be a loser. If the world seems to be a little intoxicated these days, that comes naturally from the awareness that the human race at last can do just about anything it really wants to do … land a man on the moon, abolish hunger and raggedness, or whatever. From the infinite store of humanity’s wants, name it and you can have it.
This is by all odds the most unsettling idea the race ever got. It has taken hold everywhere and there can be no getting rid of it. The world truly enough has turned upside down, the great revolution continues … and the fife and drum corps is piping a new march to the fields beyond Yorktown.