Is America “great?” Have we ever been? Why is it important to know?
We, as Americans, have been asking ourselves these questions, of late. These ought not be hard to answer yet many struggle to confidently respond. Or, might they believe the contrary?
Before we address the greater question, let’s focus on what it means to be “great.” Just what does make a nation qualify?
Looking at the standards by which we judge others is instructive.
Athletes who take their sport to another level are recognized as great. These athletes are usually measured in their greatness by comparison to others of their generation. Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz come to mind as great athletes of an era, even if their times today may not astound. Yet, it does not diminish their contributions to sport and to the setting of standards for which others to aspire. Records are broken as society encounters breakthroughs in nutrition, sports science and technique. What was great 20- to 80-years ago may seem mediocre in comparison to today’s performances. That progress, however, does not diminish the greatness of the athlete in his or her own time.
Artists, writers, musicians and leaders have been similarly measured, with most compared to others of their own generation. Every so often, though, in each of these categories we witness greatness that is timeless. Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach and Lincoln show us greatness irrespective of time.
These gifted few were, indeed , great in their disciplines and we look to them as examples of what individuals can accomplish through talent, hard work and perseverance. One of the telling facts that makes them great is not only the impact they had on their own generation but the number of people they have influenced over time. Not only were they great in their time, but over time, as well.
Nations may be measured in the same way. By every standard discussed above, measured both at the time and over time, by numbers influenced and the duration of that influence, America was — and is — great.
In comparison to any nation at the time of its birth, the United States soars above all in ideals and trajectory. The ideals, penned by Thomas Jefferson and unanimously adopted by the 13 original States, provided the foundation of our Union.
Since that time, no other nation has done more to further the human condition by preserving and promoting liberty — the fertile soil required for each of us to have a chance of reaching our potential and to pursue happiness.
Why, then, do we debate whether we are a great nation? It does not mean we are perfect or can’t do better. It does mean, based on the criterion above, we certainly meet the definition of greatness if there has ever been a nation that does. Our ideals have made us great as we have strived to achieve and live by them but many have forgotten or never known these ideals.
The second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence, referred to as the “American Creed,” capture these ideals. This creed used to be common knowledge to all Americans and each part was– and still is — uniquely American and revolutionary in thought and belief.
The American Creed begins with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
Note, this is the first time in recorded-history that any government espoused this belief. This ideal, although not in practice by our nation at the time, was adopted as a self-evident truth by which we could guide our future and by which we, as a nation, still try to achieve as we narrow the gap between ideals and practice. This ideal, which most Americans believed then and now, is surely a sign of greatness — or , at least, the seeds of greatness yet to grow and blossom at the time of our founding.
The sentence continues: “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness”
This is the first time in recorded history that a government declared that individual rights come from our Creator and not from government itself. The ideas of rights bestowed by God to mankind had been discussed, but never formally recognized, by a nation as a whole. Even England, which at the time was considered one of the freest nations on earth, declared that Sovereignty, and therefore rights, rested with Parliament and the Crown — not with the individual.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,”
This sentence represents a quantum leap of revolutionary thought as to why governments exist. No government before had dared to express or adopt this belief. Most governments’ purpose up to that time was to perpetuate self and a ruling class.
Here, we had a paradigm shift that has shaken the world ever since. The most important and proper role of government is to secure individual rights! Truly breathtaking.
“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
An encore of the highest ideals that our government only has power that is given to it by its citizens, who, themselves, are the true sovereigns. Government has no authority to be its own arbiter of power, deciding what it can and cannot do according to whim. The people, alone, have that power.
Each of these truths formed the basis of our American Founding. We believed these principles and they established the foundation by which the Constitution was created. Without this American Creed as our guiding light, we would not have the foundation needed to obtain the greatness we have achieved. As these ideals spread throughout the world, they have changed the course of history.
Yes, America was, and is great, because we have possessed these eternal truths that have never been surpassed by the human mind. The message is timeless and enduring. It must be taught and re-adopted if we are to preserve and expand upon the opportunities that our nation offers. This is why it is so important.
America’s greatness lies in its ideals. The closer we are to living these ideals the greater nation we become. The further away we get the less so.
Do we still believe in these ideals today?
Other than the first, that we are created equal, I would argue that as a nation we have forgotten the rest.
Many have forgotten the source of their unalienable rights and do not understand that the primary role of government is to secure our rights, and that government is one of limited powers delegated to it by the people.
Instead, we believe that rights are given to us by government; that government exists to take care for us or to do what it thinks best, immaterial of whether it possesses the delegated power to do so; and that government decides and arbitrates its own power and limitations, thereof.
In other words, instead of individual liberty and limited government existing as America’s first principles, as it was at our founding and the greatness that has followed, modern-day America’s first principle leans toward entitlement and whatever is needed to make life safer and easier. The fruits of these principles will not be opportunity and greatness, but abdication and decline.
As we go through the process of trading our birthright of liberty and opportunity for the bowl of pottage representing entitlement and selfishness, may we do so with eyes-open, acknowledging that we rob our children of their greatest inheritance, the ability to reach their own potential.
Our greatness wanes as we get further away from the founding principles outlined in our own revolution in deed and thought, the Declaration of Independence, which accelerated the human potential and opportunities by millennia in a singular expression of truth.
The question I now ask you: “Do you still believe?”