True National Greatness
One of the main campaign slogans of our current president was: “Make America Great Again.” In these early days of his presidency, I find myself thinking a lot about what it is that makes for American greatness. Judging from the issues that Mr. Trump focused on during his campaign and from the actions that he has taken during these opening weeks of his presidency, we might conclude that he measures American greatness primarily in terms of economic prosperity and military power. And it may be that many or even most of his supporters would agree with that.
But I wonder if that standard of greatness, defined as prosperity and power, is really the standard of true national greatness. I think it is certainly not the way the founders of our country talked about national greatness. The American founders had several examples of nations that were enormously powerful militarily and tremendously prosperous economically. The British Empire was certainly the most obvious to them, as were the kingdoms of France and Spain. All of these were powerful and wealthy. If the founders aim was military power and economic wealth, they would have been well-advised to stay with the British. Indeed, that was the advice of many colonial loyalists who opposed the independence movement. Such loyalists fretted that, if the American Revolution succeeded, America was destined to become a minor, backwater country, left to be knocked around by the great—read “powerful”—nations of the earth.
The writings of the American founding generation make quite clear that they were aiming to achieve a very different type of greatness for their new nation. They recognized full well that their new nation would not be one of the great powers among the nations of the world, and they were content. It may be tempting to read America’s superpower status right back to the beginning, but in fact, America was not seen as a major world power at least until the turn of the twentieth century and probably not until after the First World War.
The American founders wanted their independence, so that they would be free to create a nation and a society of true greatness, whose greatness would be found not in its power or wealth but rather in its principles and ideals of justice and equality, of ideals and liberty. From the very start, America was a great nation, even though it was weak and impoverished for many decades following its founding.
The first great, official document of the American nation, “The Declaration of Independence,” bases the reasons for the desire for independence on undeniable “truths,” principles of what is right and just. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This affirmation is the foundation of American greatness in the eyes of the founders. They declare that the only proper reason for government to exist is “to secure these rights.” In their view, Great Britain had at that time failed this test of true national greatness, and so in this great declaration they assert their right to establish for themselves a government that will bow in submission and acknowledgment of the inherent rights of its people. They announced their desire to strive for national greatness rather than mere national power or prosperity.
The men who affixed their names to this Declaration recognized that they were taking a concretely personal act. The act of signing this document proved very costly and dangerous to them. They did not do it to enhance their own personal status or wealth. Rather they recognized that the establishment of these rights for all the people of their new nation was worth any sacrifice to themselves. Hence, “we pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
This is the essence of national greatness according to the founders of America—the principles of universal equality and justice and the personal self-sacrifice to pursue that rather than one’s own personal gain. That is the vision of national greatness that we need for America in this time.
Our world provides us with examples of power without greatness. We see Russia exert its power to bully, abuse, invade, and terrorize its neighbors. While at home, its government stifles the rights of its citizens, the rights that our founders held so dear and for which they pledged to sacrifice their all, if necessary, in order to establish them.
In the most recent American election, there was from some a clear effort to fan the flames of fear among the American people. Frightened people are often willing to sacrifice principles of equality and justice for the sake of acquiring power. For frightened people, the pledge to sacrifice self to preserve the rights of all has no appeal.
Writing seven months before the passage of “The Declaration of Independence,” John Adams asserted his belief that Americans were not a people driven by their fears. “Fear,” he wrote, “is the foundation of most governments; but it is a so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breast it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not likely approve of a political institution which is founded on it.”
So, then, today will we strive to shape American greatness based on our fear or based on our aspiration toward ideals of justice and liberty for all? That is the challenge of our times. Certainly, a pithier writer than Adams, though no less high-minded, Benjamin Franklin addressed the issue this way, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Power without principle is unworthy of the great nation American has always aspired to be. Let’s not let our fears strip us of our greatness.
© 2017 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.