“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
-From the 1776 US Declaration of Independence
You have to wonder if Thomas Jefferson felt a little self-conscious when he added the above reference to “new Guards” that would protect the “future security” of the United States to the Declaration.
In 1776, military victory over King George’s armies was far from guaranteed. At that point, who knew if the Americans could defeat the redcoats arrayed against them, let alone create and sustain a functioning government? Talking about “new Guards” must have seemed premature.
The Declaration, as Robert Lee of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has written, “did not provide a blueprint for the monarch's replacement; it expressed a conviction that there should and could be something better.”
The ambitious reference to “new Guards” paid off later, however. It stirred great minds, like Alexander Hamilton, first US Treasury Secretary, to think about how to “give substance and structure to the Declaration's ideals,” as Lee puts it.
The US Constitution is obviously the Declaration’s most famous offspring. But it isn’t the only one.
We can’t say for sure that they are directly linked, but there’s a certain symmetry to Jefferson’s call for “new Guards” and Hamilton’s subsequent Report on Manufactures and Report on Public Credit, for example. These two extremely important documents helped create the stable economy that the new nation needed to thrive.
In this way, you could argue that Jefferson, the idealist, paved the way for the eminently practical and realistic Hamilton (and others like him) to make his own important contribution to the safeguarding of US independence.
From 18th century America, let us turn to 21st century Egypt.
There are some faint echoes of the “Spirit of ‘76” in Egypt. The political ferment there has not yet produced a figure of the same stature as Washington or Jefferson. But there was something of that early American spirit in those demonstrators in Tahir Square who decided that they had had their fill of “abuses and usurpations” at the hands of their rulers.
If we want to cheer the similarities, we cannot avoid pointing out the differences.
The most alarming difference is that there seems to be little concern about creating those “new Guards” mentioned in the Declaration, to safeguard Egyptian’s political gains by fostering some badly-needed economic stability. (It must be admitted that the Egyptians’ political gains look slimmer and more modest with each passing day.)
Where’s the plan to get Egypt’s banks up and running again, for example?
Do the protestors’ leaders have ideas on how to address the high food prices that drove so many Egyptians into the streets?
What’s their plan for enlarging the Suez Canal, so it can accommodate more traffic and give Egypt a bigger role in the world economy? (An achievement that would warm the heart of that restless nation-builder and champion of “internal improvements,” Alexander Hamilton.)
Instead of watching the “new Guards” take shape, what we find in Egypt is a lot of romantic blather about the triumph of “hope,” about the power of “youth,” about how Twitter and Facebook “empower” people – not to mention the increasingly frequent and increasingly irritating comparisons between the events in Tahir Square and the 1969 Woodstock music concerts.
The Egyptians need a bit more of the practical side of that "Spirit of '76" to guide them - of the combination of idealism and practicality that got Jefferson thinking about "new Guards."
The Egyptians need to think about how to build some "new Guards" of their own.
To paraphrase a letter written by the immortal Washington, the Egyptian people must not make “party disputes and personal quarrels… the great business of the day…”
And they cannot postpone discussion of Egypt’s economic problems (not so different from revolutionary America’s difficulties) – “accumulating debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit, which in its consequences is the want of everything…”
To protect what they have gained, the Egyptians must focus on the hard work of building those “new Guards” mentioned in the Declaration, particularly those that will steer their economy away from the abyss. And they must begin very soon.