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An obituary for American Greatness, 1776-2017

From an early age, it was a trendsetter with a magnetic personality. It lived a life filled with adventure, fame and wealth, both at home and abroad.
Tattered American Flag After Hurricane Sandy. (Education Images/UIG/Getty Images)
Tattered American flag flies after Hurricane Sandy. (Education Images/UIG/Getty Images)
Tattered American flag flies after Hurricane Sandy. (Education Images/UIG/Getty Images)

American Greatness was born on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its parents, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were the elite of colonial society. It was, however, a difficult birth.

Immediately precocious, American Greatness declared itself to be the embodiment of “certain unalienable rights … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that it enjoyed “the protection of divine Providence.” While some thought this boastful, if not revolutionary, the distinctive sense of destiny was honestly earned. The Puritan side of the family, for instance, had once lived in house on a hill that shone for all to see.

As a youngster growing up American Greatness basked in riches of resource, opportunity and imagination. Its people were the wealthiest on earth; and its founding principles, rooted in individual rights, proved very popular abroad, most notably in France. Drawn by what early biographer Alexis de Tocqueville called “the charm of anticipated success,” immigrants eagerly made their way to the new country and its promise of a classless society—where anyone could get ahead if they were prepared to work hard. American Greatness had much to share.

There were some dark family secrets, to be sure. An unresolved matter of slavery left over from the early days proved to be the biggest source of domestic difficulty. Native relations were also an issue. After trying to ignore the slavery problem for many years, the matter finally came to a head in 1860. Typical of the outsized nature of the country and its aspirations, the resulting civil war was a massive and bloody affair with implications that still haunt the nation today.

After the war, it was back to work. American Greatness grew fast in a land that seemed to offer unlimited possibility and unprecedented upward mobility. “An open field and a fair chance … that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life” was how Abraham Lincoln, a close associate of American Greatness, summarized it. The rest of the world apparently approved. Between 1860 and 1890, the country’s population doubled. By 1930 it had nearly doubled again. American Greatness spent much of this time in the shop out back, tinkering on trains, cars and telephones. Whatever it did, there was a sense of urgency and purpose. “The old nations of the world creep along at a snail’s pace,” said Andrew Carnegie, another good friend of American Greatness. “The Republic thunders past with the speed of an express.”

4th July 1918: American soldiers driving through streets during 4th July celebrations. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
4th July 1918: American soldiers driving through streets during 4th July celebrations. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

After avoiding international travel for many years, American Greatness began to venture abroad during this time of growing wealth and power. It could certainly afford it. A trip to Cuba in 1898 led to an extended journey throughout the Caribbean and beyond. Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet around-the-world cruise in 1907 also established a taste for global attention that would mark its later years. Wherever American Greatness travelled, it left behind unmistakeable evidence of its presence, including the Panama Canal.

In 1929, American Greatness ran into some financial difficulties. Not used to setbacks, it took to blaming others for its problems. In a fit of what many now believe to be a deep depression, it spent many years at home ignoring the outside world. When this funk was finally over, it emerged from isolation in typically grand style. (It arrived late to both the First and Second World Wars, and to great effect.) No one stole the show quite like American Greatness.

In its maturing years, American Greatness came to more fully understand its obligations to others. It helped out with a huge renovation project in Europe, participated in many community organizations (after earlier avoiding them like the plague), pledged to defend its rich friends and gave money, advice and manpower to the less fortunate in Africa and Asia. Memorably, it even travelled to the moon on behalf of all humanity—evidence of both its limitless capacity for achievement and enormous generosity of spirit.

Believing that a wealthy, interconnected and democratic world was the best defence against future conflict, American Greatness was almost single-handedly responsible for the massive increase in international trade and global prosperity throughout the post-war era, leading the way as the world’s dominant trading nation. Immigration grew in step. And its choice in music, movies and books were universally admired. “Whichever heap you choose, America sits on top of it,” remarked German journalist and academic Josef Joffe in 1997.

Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last forever. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a banking crisis distracted American Greatness from its trademark optimism and big-hearted sense of purpose. It became self-obsessed, argumentative and withdrawn. Endless squabbles over domestic politics got in the way of more important issues, like defending democracy and equal opportunity for all. Meanwhile, a new competitor stole its title as the world’s biggest exporter. Neighbours worried that the old symptoms of isolation and blaming others had returned.

Finally and ironically, it was a promise to “Make America Great Again” that proved fatal to American Greatness. By closing its borders to immigrants, turning its back on free trade, alienating friends and allies, abandoning overseas charity, narrowing its perspective, fighting with itself and generally behaving in a boorish, self-centred and childlike manner, it lost its pre-eminent global position as well as its status as a role model for others. After a brief but chaotic bout of distemper, American Greatness died in 2017. It was 241.