In the national mythology of the United States, the American revolutionaries were sure about everything. They wrote the Declaration of Independence, not the Suggestion of Independence. They trafficked in the rugged cargo of self-evident truths and common sense. ‘I dwell not upon the vapours of imagination,’ wrote Thomas Paine in the midst of the American Revolution. ‘I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.’
But were the American revolutionaries really so sure about their world? So allergic to vapours of the imagination? So keen for truth wrapped in plain language? Maybe it is later generations of Americans who have imposed a need for certainty onto these people from long ago.
The Declaration of Independence severed ties with Great Britain, and the Constitution framed the new federal government. These delicate documents stood between revolutionary Americans and what they called tyranny. America’s nationality, its political culture, rests on the narrow ledge of these 18th-century documents. No documents, no nation. So the founders better have been sure about what they wrote. Sure-footed, sure-minded, sure that this new republican government was better than what had come before.
This is the Fable of Founder Certainty. And it is just that: a fable. In fact, the American founders were uncertain about many things. They were uncertain about politics, nature, society, economics, human beings and happiness. The sum total of human knowledge was smaller in the 18th century, when a few hardy souls could still aspire to know everything. But even in this smaller pond of knowledge, and within a smaller interpretive community of political actors, the founders did not pretend certainty on the questions of their day. Instead they routinely declared their uncertainty.
If we imagine the world of ideas as a frozen pond, then the American revolutionaries were the skaters who ignored the sign that said ‘Thin Ice’ and skated on, above the deepest, black water. The ice was thin, but thin was interesting, exhilarating. It was where worlds of exploration and possibility opened. What is this new place, America? How in fact do we know what kind of government best serves the people who live there? What sort of data should we use? Our senses? Nature? History? The American revolutionaries wondered; they did not know.
Sometimes they fell through the ice, plunging into the cold, black water. Maybe the whole republican experiment is doomed because republicanism rests on the people, and the people don’t always know what to do. Doomed because they don’t know what a perfect society should look like, or what will bring them happiness. Doomed to not know because our senses, our own eyes and ears, can deceive us. The revolutionaries worried about those unknowns. Then they hauled themselves back out of the freezing depths to skate another day.
There is a lesson here. The revolutionaries liked to ponder uncertainty, to live in the freeing moments it creates. They realised that the act of thinking about important matters – what kind of government they should have, what kind of society they want to live in – has inherent value. The journey is the goal. The point of skating is not necessarily to get to the other side of the frozen pond, but to tear free of the constraints of merely walking. They skated around, thrilling at the thin ice.
Americans preach the Fable of Founder Certainty from the grandstands of every Fourth of July parade, from Portland in Oregon to Portland in Maine. Americans constantly tell themselves that republican revolution was self-evidently a great idea, that the revolutionaries knew exactly what happiness was and how to pursue it. That none of the revolutionaries had any misgivings or regrets, even though today Americans doubt so many things.
In this way, the Fable of Founder Certainty obscures one of the most fundamental of human experiences: doubt. It was one of the defining, vital qualities of the American revolutionaries. They skated past the Danger sign.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/america-treats-its-bold-revolution-as-a-reliquary