People are fragile. A corollary is that anything comprised of people is also fragile, from companies to countries.

I’ll skip documenting how fragile companies are since most people are familiar with the stats: only 52 of the companies that comprised the Fortune 500 in 1955 survived to the 2019 list; the rest have gone bankrupt, been acquired, or dropped off the list. It seems that the lifespan of even the strongest companies approximate the lifespan of the people that built them.

But what about countries?

Those of us in the United States from November 2, 2020 – January 6, 2021 learned how robust the strongest democracy in the world is. In short, it’s fragile. It’s hard to know how close to the line we came because, like the boxer, we’ve haven’t broken yet. But I think that the distance was smaller than we think.

I’m reading Founding Brothers, a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Joseph Ellis whose opening chapter describes the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that killed Hamilton. It was written in 2000 about the 1804 duel and has passages that are stunning:

It is difficult for us to fathom fully the threat that Burr represented to Hamilton because we know that the American experiment with republican government was destined to succeed. We know that a nation so conceived and so dedicated could and did endure, indeed flourish, to become the longest-lived republic in world history. Not only was such knowledge unavailable to Hamilton and his contemporaries, the political landscape they saw around themselves was a dangerously fluid place, where neither the national laws nor institutions had yet hardened into permanent fixtures. Or if one wished to think biologically rather than architecturally, the body politic had yet to develop its immunities to the political diseases afflicting all new nations. What seems extravagant and hyperbolic in Hamilton’s critical description of Burr, then, was not a symptom of Hamilton’s paranoia so much as a realistic response to the genuine vulnerability of the still-tender young plant called the United States. So much seemed to be at stake because, in truth, it was.

Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis.

The paragraph is stunning, not because it predicted 2020 but because it misses and under appreciate how fragile our mature republic is. The two-hundred-and-twenty-year-old republic that must have seemed impregnable to Ellis in 2000 is the two-hundred-and-forty-year-old republic in 2020 whose institutions are still dangerously fluid and still have not hardened into permanent fixtures. And so our dependence on the character of people persists:

Honor mattered because character mattered. And character mattered because the fate of the American experiment with republican government still required virtuous leaders to survive. Eventually, the United States might develop into a nation of laws and established institutions capable of surviving corrupt or incompetent public officials. But it was not there yet. It still required honorable and virtuous leaders to endure.

Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis.

Net, our Republic is as fragile at 240 years old as it was at 20. Everything made by men and women is fragile.


P.S. Ellis’ description of Burr as a hypomanic opportunist also strike an eerie chord, as a simple find and replace reveals:

Burr’s Trump’s reputation as a notorious womanizer or as a lavish spender who always managed to stay one step ahead of his creditors did not trouble Hamilton. What did worry him to no end was the ominous fit between Burr’s Trump’s political skills and the opportunities for mischief so clearly available in a nation whose laws and institutions were still congealing.

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