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our heels, many people here and abroad increasingly viewed our country and its system of representative government as outdated, flawed, and in decline.
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 if this country is to flourish and fulfill its promise, it’s we the people who will have to do it.
What does “the promise of America” actually mean? Looked at broadly it’s really two promises, both of which were revolutionary in their time: 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 who can participate in American democracy. We can never think of that work as done, or that the promises have been kept.
The founders believed that this burden could only be carried by a “virtuous” electorate. By this, they did not just mean moral probity or self-discipline, though these 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, but also 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.”
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.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.