When America Was Great

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2019/07/29/when-america-was-great/

The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission reignited controversy about America’s greatness (or lack thereof). Putting human beings on the moon decades before the Internet was a singular achievement. One might think it obvious that such a monumental accomplishment is evidence that the United States has been a great nation.

Not everyone agrees. Skeptics point to national sins such as slavery, displacement of Indigenous people, state-enforced segregation, and gender discrimination as evidence that America was never really all that great. But this is to confuse greatness with perfect goodness. America’s historic offenses, as grievous and unjust as they were, prove the rule that America has been both great and good, though not perfectly good.

Begin with the Founding itself. Uniquely in the history of the world, the thirteen colonies that broke from the British Empire in 1776 grounded their new political experiment neither in the authority of sovereign will nor in racial identity but rather in unalienable, natural rights. Those who signed the Declaration invoked their particular rights under the constitution of British North America and their rights as human beings, which are universal and which all people share equally.

The founders baked the equal and inherent dignity of each and every person into the cake of our political commitments. America’s first, great contribution was to teach a candid world that a nation need not identify herself primarily by race or monarchical traditions. Rather, this new nation was, as Lincoln later explained, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

It took many decades for Americans to bring our practices into conformity with our principles. Yet in making and reforming our more perfect union, Americans time and again showed that we were great, though not perfectly good. We peacefully and democratically abolished doctrines held over from English law that conflicted with equal dignity and natural rights, such as the rule that the oldest son inherits his father’s entire estate, and the doctrine of coverture, by which a woman’s legal identity was subsumed under her husband’s when she married.

Americans also abolished slavery by democratic means, debating the Thirteenth Amendment during the twilight of the Civil War and eventually ratifying it several months after it ended.

Of course, this move toward a more perfect union was not peaceful. Toleration of slavery was America’s most unjust offense against the natural and equal rights of all people. And repenting of it cost her dearly. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their lives so that, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Even in her worst moments, America has not been timid, mediocre, or ambivalent.

The Civil Rights movement again showed American greatness. And though it also showed that we are not perfectly good, the moment revealed that we recognize what is good and right. The heroic willingness of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and others to be arrested for disobeying unjust laws, and their calls to remember the law of nature that show segregation to be unjust, pricked the conscience of Americans, who responded with legislation securing equal civil and political rights.

On all of those occasions, and on many others, America has shown her greatness by calling herself to be faithful to her original principles. At our best, and when we are most exceptionally American, we acknowledge the equal and inherent, natural rights that all human beings possess, Americans and non-Americans alike. Indeed, we have vindicated the superiority of natural rights and the equal dignity of all people even overseas, as when we led the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Americans held the Nazi leadership accountable for their infringements of natural rights after Americans shed their blood to liberate Europeans from that totalitarian regime.

The source and essence of American greatness is our commitment to natural law, and to securing the fundamental rights that all persons possess by the law of nature and nature’s God. Racists and tyrants have always denied the universal, natural law and objected to its declaration. In our weakest moments we have allowed such tyrants, especially slave owners, to hold and abuse power over other Americans. We have diminished our greatness and our goodness when, and to the extent that, we have not adhered strictly and rigorously to our own principles.

Those who deny America’s greatness correctly accuse America of having failed at times to respect natural law. In short, they argue that Americans have not always been perfectly American. Clearly, we have not. But that is not an argument against American greatness. It is not even an argument against American goodness. It is instead an implicit recognition that the declarations of natural law and natural rights which America has given the world set the standard by which a nation’s greatness is measured.


Adam J. MacLeod is Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Alabama. He is author of Property and Practical Reason and is writing a new book, What is Right? Discourse in the Age of Selfies, due out later this year. His former student, Fred Crochen, inspired this essay, within whose capacious gratitude for the blessings of ordered liberty America grows greater each day.