The world in those days operated on the basis of utter inequality. The self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence contradicted the entire experience of mankind. Whether the ruler was a king who claimed to rule by divine right or an emperor who claimed the mandate of Heaven, it was everywhere the same. Because the Founders’ idea of government by, for, and of the people is so deeply engrained in our imaginations, it is difficult for us to conceive of human life as it then was.

America’s truly incredible social and political success put this older world on the road to extinction. Foreign observers went from confidently predicting that America would fail to living through the collapse of their own regimes, made illegitimate by America’s shining example. Kings and emperors are gone now or reduced to mere ceremonial figures. Today, only peculiar and backward places, like Saudi Arabia, operate according to something like the old way of governance, and everyone knows that this anomaly will last only as long as the Saudi royals can continue to bribe their subjects.

Make no mistake, the Founders understood America’s significance for all humankind. They knew that they had put the world on the path to turning right-side up at last. Here is how Thomas Jefferson put it, near the end of his life:

“All eyes are open to or opening to…the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

You may be familiar with these words, too, but have you noticed how that “by the grace of God” works here? People everywhere had been operating according to the belief that God had put saddles on their backs and rulers in the saddle. It was simply accepted as the way of things. Jefferson was declaring the end of all that. The old idea of hereditary monarchs backed by an official state religion was over.