America has Changed Profoundly from its Founding to Today.

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Per Capita GDP, adjusted for inflation, index year 2011

We state the obvious to anyone conscious today: the United States is a vastly different country compared to its condition in 1789 when our new Constitution took effect. We have grown from 4 million people to 332 million people in a land area nine times greater than the thirteen colonies that tacked themselves together after defeating Britain in a war of independence. From a country on the earth’s margins with half the population of Britain at the time we have become the most powerful nation on earth, ever. A substantial portion of the inventions that transformed the entire world from the mid-nineteenth century to today were developed in America, forging its status as the world’s largest economy today, and still the leader in technology innovations across many areas of the economy. From 75% of the free adult male population allowed to vote in 1789 (best in the world then) we have expanded suffrage to include all men and women over the age of 17, with a demographic that reflects the distribution of people and languages the world over.

These material changes have been strongly influenced by key transformative events. Our Civil War, growing out of slavery and the structure of our government (it was not all good) that left the false sense of deserved autonomy in the south, freed the slaves and left a paradoxical residue that imposed over time the Bill of Rights on the states (among other powers and constraints previously restricted to the national administration) but ironically increased state authority, particularly in the south where it was used to abuse and kill our black citizens for a century thereafter. Distortions within the federal-state relationship remain, less virulent than before 1965, but unquestionably manifest. However, at that time we got the Civil War Amendments: 13 outlawing slavery; 14 giving former slaves citizenship and imposing due process and equal protection of the laws on the states which culminated over time with most of the Bill of Rights incorporated into state mandates; and 15 denying states the power to restrict voting based on race (which southern states ignored for a century and still make efforts to curtail voting by black citizens).

Reactions to the wave of inventions in the latter half of the nineteenth century, its concomitant economic growth, massive wage gap (Rockefeller was worth $500 billion in today’s money), a precursor to the Depression in 1893, poverty, urbanization, and political violence (two Presidents were assassinated) provoked the Progressive Movement of the early Twentieth Century and a kind of corollary sequence of Constitutional Amendments—16 enabling a progressive income tax, 17 creating a Senate with elected rather than appointed members, 18 outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages, and 19 granting women the right to vote, all in a six year span. That Prohibition was repealed 15 years later (Amendment 21) does not gainsay its value and point; alcoholism and abuse of women declined considerably during Prohibition (they are related), only to return with repeal along with organized crime that the amendment triggered, both with us today. This is in part “be careful what you wish for” and in part “the law cannot forbid all sins.” It can be argued that the remaining Constitutional Amendments (20 and 22 through 27) passed later do not fall within the adjective “transformative.”

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The Depression may be the most significant of the transformative events as they relate to our government. While the creation of agencies to control elements of our economy began with the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, and the vocabulary of equality flowed out of the Progressive Movement, Roosevelt’s New Deal fully institutionalized them, laying the groundwork for the Great Society Program erected by Lyndon Johnson between 1964 and 1968 to ameliorate the effects of discrimination and economic inequality across classes, races, and genders. It created a government which (with the addition of our military/industrial complex as Eisenhower characterized it) in many ways operates outside the immediate influence of our elected leaders.

We can hardly avoid the consequences of World War II and the incredible reach of modern, rapidly changing technologies. America was formed around the beginning of nationalism, whose formal sense arose from the Treaties of Westphalia (1648) ending the Thirty-Years War that defined sovereignty in terms of national independence relative to other nations (which included protocols for international relations). While meant to forestall wars among nations, only during the nineteenth century did it seem to have that effect. The idea that standing military power in each nation would avert war was destroyed by World War I and buried by World War II. But that war produced the atomic bomb, a threat that has so far prevented war among developed countries, but not among underdeveloped countries or between select developed countries and underdeveloped countries.

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What is coming into serious question now is the idea of nationalism itself. Communications and transportation systems have shrunk the world considerably; both now operate under fully global organizations and protocols. Interlocked economies, a key goal of the Truman Doctrine, have clearly materialized, not yet to the point of preventing war, but clearly moving in that direction. English is becoming a lingua franca for the world, American materialism seems to have seized the imaginations of the reset of the world, and global economic growth built largely on American inventions has simultaneously taken billions out of poverty but put concomitant pressure on land and water resources. We are clearly in another transformative moment in world history, perhaps not as profound as the world after writing or the world after the printing press, but one moving with unprecedented speed. The perils of global warming are measured in decades, not centuries. Seas rising will dislodge tens of millions from their countries in the next thirty years. Viruses spread in weeks. Religious terrorism (the cause of the Thirty Years War) has access to dangerous technologies. Yet many nations on earth today, including the United States, find populism (read xenophobia) and a related appeal of autocracy growing. The tensions now between the transparent needs for more governing institutions with global sovereignty and the closing of minds to internationalism may be the most important of our current difficulties.