Both the founders’ revolution and the progressives’ revolution by evolution were unprecedented in U.S. history. They changed the operating system of our nation. In both cases, the relationship between the people and their government was dramatically altered. Is it possible that we are watching something unprecedented unfold as national, state, and local governments respond to the COVID-19 crisis?
In our age of clickbait and hyperbole, people call things “unprecedented” that are not unprecedented at all. Public officials shamelessly brag that the nation’s recent economic growth is unequaled. (It’s not.) Broadcasters breathlessly report that today’s anxiety over the stock market is unheard of. (Actually the number of suicides after the Crash of 1929 was higher.)
Rarely does something happen that is truly unprecedented. Is our government’s response to COVID-19 one of them? We shall explore the question in a moment.
But first, let’s get a feel for what qualifies as unprecedented by reviewing a time or two in U.S. history when something truly without precedent happened.
The American founding surely qualifies. It is hard nowadays to be shocked by our founders’ resumes, but take a minute to recall what they endured to accomplish what they did. Militarily it was reckless to take on Britain, the superpower of the day. About one-third of the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies were Loyalists hostile to American independence, so there was a fifth columnist ready to undermine the Patriot cause from within.
Moreover, at the start of the War for Independence there was no U.S. Navy. The underdog of underdogs, the Thirteen Colonies were a subset of 42 colonies in Britain’s Atlantic theater, many with the capacity to provision warships that could harass American ships and ports with relative impunity. Indeed, the entire American coast should have been effectively blockaded yet, mirabile dictu, Britain’s Royal Navy would lose the Revolutionary War.
Without a dominating Navy or an Army that could decisively defeat the Continental Army, King George III was powerless to stop America’s founders from winning their independence and launching political, social, economic, and religious revolutions. The Patriots were rebelling not just against Britain, but also against a thousand years of historical habit. Talk about unprecedented. Breaking violently from the mother country, the founders deliberated and then decided to establish a republic in a world of hostile monarchs; the resulting Constitution is an enduring masterpiece of republican statecraft. Having the audacity to abolish birthright aristocracy in a world of nobility, the founders proclaimed that all men are created equal in their possession of natural rights; the idea and reality of unlimited upward mobility would mark America off from the rest of the world, as generations of immigrants could attest. Spurning the top-down mercantilist policies of the colonial era, the founders boldly established an operationally flexible, free-market economy; within a mere one hundred years after the Constitution was ratified, America built the most powerful economy in world history.
Also note, given that the founding occurred in the shadow of terrible wars of religion across Christendom, that the Washington administration was bold enough to proclaim, in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” American spiritual energies were on a leash long enough to move throughout society, but short enough to stay on the perimeter of the state. Protestants initially dominated but would soon have to make room for a succession of other denominations and faiths. Aside from the brief Mormon War (1838), the U.S. would never undertake a war of religion, and that is unusual in world history. Taken together, all these interlaced factors—political, social, economic, and religious—make the United States an unprecedented historical entity, breathtaking in its implications for humankind.
Not all unprecedented events are so grand in the popular imagination as the founding of a nation. Fast forward more than a century later, to the 1890s and 1900s. These decades were not as flashy as the 1770s and 1780s, but they were just as momentous for the nation’s future. For the first time in American history, a President and Congress sought to establish an empire beyond our continental boundaries. The frontier had been declared closed by the Census of 1890, but Americans’ restless spirit would not be contained. Looking around, President McKinley and leaders in Congress found in Spain a decadent empire from which the U.S. could cherry pick as much territory as it wanted. By means of “a splendid little war”—it did not even last four months—we grabbed Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. We insured that Cuba gained its independence from Spain, though in reality it became a client state of the U.S., which stationed soldiers and sailors on the island and intervened at will in Cuba’s internal affairs. In the same burst of expansion we annexed Hawaii and, soon afterward, American Samoa (which, incidentally, was one of the most successfully quarantined islands in the world during the devastating 1918 Spanish flu pandemic). As a result of acquiring these far-flung territories in the 1890s, the United States became for the first time in its history a transoceanic empire—truly one of history’s greatest powers.