Philadelphia’s Message to the World

This blog is based on a talk to 3,000 high school students at the Ivy League Model UN Conference in Philadelphia, January 28, 2016.

Late last year, Philadelphia became the first US city to be granted World Heritage City status by UNESCO.  This is an opportunity for Philadelphians to pause and reflect on precisely what it is that constitutes Philadelphia’s contribution to world history, and what, if anything, Philadelphia can teach the world today.  

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Of course, we associate our nation’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States – with Philadelphia, where they were drafted. But, still, what precise lessons emerge from these documents, and how well are we communicating those lessons to the world – or even to our own children?

I have heard it said that Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern democracy. But, as the economist Steven Hanke has pointed out, the word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  And the bell we revere in Independence Square is not called the Democracy Bell.

If the truth be told, the Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy, even fearful of it, for they associated it with the tyranny of the majority.  They therefore constructed a constitution designed, as UPenn historian Walter McDougall notes, “to thwart democracy.” They separated powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, divided powers between federal and state governments, provided for each branch of government to check the others while limiting the powers of all. These are the means by which the founders sought to limit what majority rule could do.

Ultimately, Hanke explains, they gave us not democracy, but liberty.

The difference is important for the world at large, especially as we try to foster transitions to “democracy.”  That a country holds an election may make it democratic but it does not make it free if there are no protections for individual liberty and no structures in place to protect that liberty from a tyrant in the form of a person or in the form of “the people.”    

In a conference we sponsored on “The Creation of a Liberal Society: Did It Happen in Philadelphia by Accident?,” the historian Alan Tully reminded us of the signal contribution of William Penn, whose statue stands atop City Hall in Philadelphia. In 1681, he was given a charter for a province that became the commonwealth that took his name – Pennsylvania. As a Quaker, a sect once persecuted in England for their religious beliefs and practices, Penn promulgated for that province — but ultimately for the country as a whole — freedom of conscience, freedom to follow the religion of your choice. After a century of havoc wrought in Europe by the Wars of Religion, Penn’s concept of freedom of conscience was a novel idea. We take it for granted but experiences in other parts of the world – and even sometimes here at home — suggest that it is not something that can ever be taken for granted. 

Freedom of religion is our first freedom, not only philosophically but literally as well. The first of ten amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, whose passage was promised in order to secure ratification of the Constitution in the first place, reads:  “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thus, freedom of religion is the very first right guaranteed in the very first amendment.  It is the cornerstone of liberty.  

Does this speak to the modern world?  It most certainly does, as many pundits have already opined that the wars of religion in the Middle East today seem so reminiscent of the Wars of Religion of yesteryear. The maltreatment of religious minorities in the Middle East, sometimes bordering on genocide, is in desperate need of correction. It is noteworthy that on January 27 a meeting of 250 Muslim religious leaders in Marrakesh, Morocco issued the Marrakesh Declaration affirming that Islam prohibits the mistreatment of religious minorities in Muslim majority states.  From William Penn to Marrakesh, you can draw a straight line. 

What can Philadelphia teach the world? That liberty is a higher value than democracy, and that freedom of conscience is the basis of all liberty. 

Historians have noted that the history of the world through time and space is a history largely of war, oppression, and poverty, save for the last few hundred years when we have carved out a space for peace and peaceful resolution of conflict, for liberty, and for prosperity.  And at least some debt for this is owed to what happened in Philadelphia in the 1700s.  It remained for the generations that followed and for us today first to understand this legacy – and then to build on it to spread the blessings of liberty.

Alan Luxenberg is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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