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The American experiment is our inheritance

America’s project of republican democracy faces tests in every generation and success isn’t guaranteed


The American experiment is our inheritance
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By definition, an experiment is based on inductive reasoning and observation of how concrete elements behave in a controlled environment. Such an experiment is designed to verify or falsify a general hypothesis and is dependent upon evidence. In these ways, an experiment differs from abstract theory.

America is rightly described as an experiment. As Abraham Lincoln classically expressed, the American experiment is a test of “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Our national experiment has been tested in the context of changing circumstances. But the experiment itself remains unchanged—can the American people govern themselves virtuously and freely? Unlike an exercise of abstract logic, an experiment can actually fail. A deductive argument only exists in the mind, whereas an experiment involving concrete subjects exists in reality.

We are now surrounded by a host of theories and ideologies. Catholic integralism, magisterial Christian nationalism, and progressive utopianism only exist in the mind, but the American constitutional order really exists among the dead, living, and yet-to-be-born. If theories fall apart, who cares? But if American republican democracy falls apart from the irresistible application of forces emerging from some abstract theory, that would be a tragedy with unthinkable consequences.

Because American values have served as an inheritance received from the past, the American experiment has been handed down since the Revolution. Every generation of Americans has posed the question of American self-government, albeit in differing contexts with unique challenges. The American experiment was, and continues to be, predicated upon a set of political ideas that were articulated in the founding documents, and those founding documents remain the frame of reference for all our political activity. As the experiment continues to be conducted by succeeding generations, the constitutional order flexes and evolves with the times, and that flexibility is a feature of the constitutional order as seen, for example, in the amendment process of Article V of the Constitution.

Even when Americans criticize themselves for hypocrisy, we do so within the framework of our shared past, especially the national founding.

Even when Americans criticize themselves for hypocrisy, we do so within the framework of our shared past, especially the national founding. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the rights and freedoms that are contained therein, have been the inspiration for civil reform movements going back to when the ink was barely dry on the parchment itself.

Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833), veteran of the Continental Army and the first African American to be ordained in a major Protestant denomination (Congregational church, 1785), called for the abolition of slavery on the basis of the Declaration just months after it was signed. He did so in an essay entitled, “Liberty Further Extended,” written on forty-six 3¾- by 6-inch pages. In the first lines of the essay, Haynes quoted from the Declaration’s preamble: “we hold these truths to be self-Evident, that all men are created Equal, and they are Endowed By their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happyness.” (I like his spelling of happiness.)

His central argument was that liberty was an unalienable right possessed not only by whites, but also by blacks. Therefore, slavery is morally wrong. It was also against the stated policy of the Continental Congress, which had formally adopted the Declaration and all its affirmations on July 4, 1776, as the basis for the thirteen colonies’ separation from Great Britain.

From 1776 until today, Americans of every generation have looked to the ideals of the founding and called the nation to faithfulness to those ideals. Equality under law, rights, liberties, the pursuit of happiness, the advancement of the general welfare of the nation—these ideals were never theoretical, but concrete realities that Americans have purposed themselves to fulfill.

Failures to fulfill those ideals have led to the greatest controversies in American history, but those failures are themselves evidence of the fact that American values were given as a complete theory at the founding, and continue to serve as the shared frame of reference by Americans today.

John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.

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