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Nation-Building in 1776

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As the United States prepares to celebrate its 227th birthday Friday, it's worth pondering the question: Why did the Founding Fathers succeed in building a nation, when so many others have failed?

The 13 original states enjoyed tremendous advantages, as they joined to throw off British rule in 1776, that many countries today still do not enjoy. They had societies in which citizens took civic responsibilities seriously. They had functioning state and local governments. They had working judiciaries. They had functioning, if rudimentary, militias and leaders - such as George Washington - with military experience.

There were other advantages that cannot be duplicated. The free population of the 13 Colonies overwhelmingly shared the same ethnic and religious background. This helped prevent the new nation from bogging down in the ethnic and religious disputes that have prevented agreement on basic principles in some other countries. Immigration and emancipation, however, would greatly enrich American society and make the US the nation it is today.

With all that, the United States almost didn't happen. The cultural, economic, political, and social divisions that existed between North and South at the time of independence grew and split the nation apart in a terrible civil war. Southerners decided their first loyalty was to their state, not to the US. Yet eventually the Americans' shared values brought them back together.

Since then, the US has been engaged in a struggle to ensure that all Americans - of all races, colors, religions - enjoy the rights the Founders so boldly declared with "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

As the US takes up further nation-building abroad, it's useful to remember the differences between those 13 Colonies in 1776 and the peoples Americans are trying to help today, from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Iraq - all new nations. Others need not repeat US history to succeed. But a deeper understanding of it might provide Americans a useful reality check.


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