Decades ago, it was easy to talk about “the promise of America,” as historians and boosters did regularly, and have most people understand what you meant. These days, I worry they’d look at you as if you’d taken leave of your senses.
Even before the pandemic threw us back on our heels, many people here and abroad increasingly viewed our country and its system of representative government as outdated, flawed, and in decline. They question whether it deserves to be perpetuated or to serve as a beacon for others.
And yet, while there’s room to be chastened and reflective about this shift, what it really means, I think, is that as Americans we have our work cut out for us. Because our system—which really did produce a nation that served as a beacon and a model for others—was put in our care by the people who created it. If this country is to flourish and fulfill its promise, it’s we the people who will have to do it.
So what does “the promise of America” actually mean? In its details the answer differs from person to person, but looked at broadly it’s really two promises, both of which were revolutionary at the beginning and are still compelling almost two and a half centuries later: to give each American the opportunity to reach his or her potential, and to give us the ability to strive together to solve our problems.
In many ways, the history of our country consists of trying to make good on those promises—expanding our conception of the people to whom they apply, working out what self-governance actually means, broadening our definitions of who can participate in American democracy. We can never think of that work as done, or that the promises have been kept. Ben Franklin’s famous reply to Elizabeth Willing Powel when she asked what the Constitutional Convention had created — “A republic, if you can keep it”—sums up the eternal challenge.
This is because the country’s founders entrusted Americans with a form of government that imposes the burden of safeguarding it not just for ourselves, but as a symbol of hope elsewhere—the notion that economic opportunity and political engagement are part and parcel of citizenship. But beyond that, they believed fully that this burden could only be carried by a “virtuous” electorate.
By this, they did not just mean moral probity or honesty or self-discipline or a sense of responsibility, though all of those are important. They were also looking for a sense of civic self-sacrifice—a capacity to set aside self-interest and act for the benefit of the broader community. They thought it crucial in political leaders—though they also recognized that no one could be perfect, and so developed a constitutional system of checks and balances aimed at restraining the power of any one person and, indeed, of the majority over the minority. And they thought that it was crucial in the ultimate source of political power, the electorate. As James Madison put it in 1788, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” Or as historian Bernard Bailyn once wrote, “an informed, alert, intelligent, and uncorrupted electorate” is vital to safeguarding the American republic.
The same, in fact, might be said of any American institution, public and private. The responsibility for fulfilling “the promise of America”—and of doing so by taking a view larger than pure self-interest—lies with politicians and voters, but also with businesses and unions and nonprofits and community organizations and all the efforts that bring us together.
We live in a time of great political turmoil, when the trends of the previous century—the expansion of voting rights, the extension of civil liberties, the broadening of the belief that all Americans are entitled to opportunity—are threatened with reversal. Whatever the course of these political battles, the founders’ challenge couldn’t be clearer: Whether this remains a nation of promise to all is up to us.