A Repudiation of Conventional Ideas of American Greatness and an Investigation of its True Source
The great and the ghastly; the heavenly and the hideous; the mediocre and the momentous; the desirable and the despicable; the salutary and the shameful; the benevolent and the baneful; the propitious and the painful; the successful and the subsistent; the entrepreneurial and the enslaved; the majestic and the minuscule; the undeniable and the underrated; the venerated and the vindictive; the discreet and the demagogic; the peaceful and the polemical; the inseparable and the irreconcilable; war and peace; the good, the bad, and the ugly; it has all racked America at some time or another. The vertex of nearly every conceivable line of reasoning, the United States of America have, in their brief existence, preserved more lives, secured more liberty, dispelled more lies, housed more opportunity, hosted more success, defended more innocents, and nurtured more enterprise than any other nation in history.
Indeed, to dispute that America is great is self-defeating; the very fact that one has the freedom in America to make such an assertion is indicative of her greatness. Think of other nations, such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, that we generally regard as far less than great; one of their most notable identifying marks is the fact that their citizens are bereft of the right to call out their own government.
If one observes contemporary politics for more than a few hours, he will doubtless notice that much is being said about American greatness. Unfortunately, it seems to be the proclivity of man to say much without saying anything at all. Our culture is awash in vain sound bytes, and many of those sound bytes have touched on American greatness, culminating in our President’s campaign motto, “Make America Great Again.”
Caught up in this flurry of popular jargon, I fear that we have used the word great so often and so carelessly that we have lost touch with its meaning. Have we done so? What is American greatness, and why is America great? The answers to these questions and our response to those answers could very well set the course for our republic.
In recent years, amid a maelstrom of rising national debt, recession, war, terror, and social chaos, it has become popular to comfort ourselves with a quip that usually runs something like, “America will overcome because she is great.” Is this true? What about the time when America was not great? If greatness is the key to overcoming adversity, how did she become great, in the first place?
What exactly is greatness? Is national greatness an inherent quality, innate to the souls of the citizens of a given nation, or is it something that is attained? Is it a metaphysical (not material) attribute that is grounded in something greater than chemistry? If so, is it a metaphysical convention of man, or is it an objective constant that rests on something greater than man?
Certainly, America is great; but why is she great? Why has she remained great? Is greatness self-authenticating and self-preserving? When it is threatened, is greatness the key to its own maintenance? In our investigation of American greatness, we will discuss the issue of America’s civil greatness, particularly. I will seek to both demonstrate that American greatness cannot be self-authenticating or self-preserving and offer a well-supported explanation of American greatness.
America Will Be Great Because She is Great?
I think that we can disprove the aforementioned quip by applying one of the most basic rules of logic — the conclusion must follow from the premises. We will find that this statement does not stand logical scrutiny. In short, the problem with the assertion that America’s greatness will carry her through adversity is simple — circular reasoning. Let’s dig in.
In such an assertion, the conclusion is stated and then ostensibly supported by a premise. Let’s put this in bullet-point form:
- Premise: America is great
- Conclusion: Therefore, she must overcome difficulty
Whenever we are examining an assertion, we must ask ourselves two questions. First, we must ask, “Is the premise correct?” Second, we must ask ourselves, “Is the conclusion a logical outworking of the premise(s)?”
So, let us examine the premise. Is America great? To determine this, we must consider what it means to be great. According to Merriam-Webster, to be great is to be “markedly superior in character or quality.” When America’s qualities and virtues are compared with those of any other nation on earth, it becomes difficult and self-defeating to contend that America is not “markedly superior in character or quality.” She has not been without her blights; but, compared to any other nation on the planet, she is exceptionally beautiful. Please consider the following exceptional attributes of the U.S. that seem to constitute her superiority:
- Exceptional Prosperity
According to the Pew Research Center, “many Americans who are classified as ‘poor’ by the U.S. government would be middle income globally…” Think of it: America’s poorest citizens are as well off as most of the rest of the world’s middle class!
- Exceptional Liberty
Additionally, the U.S. Constitution has more adequately served to protect the people from tyranny than any other governing document in the world. Ronald Reagan is quoted as relating the following story: “Two Soviets . . . were talking to each other. And one of them asked, ‘What’s the difference between the Soviet Constitution and the United States Constitution?’ And the other one said, ‘That’s easy. The Soviet Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of gathering. The American Constitution guarantees freedom after speech and freedom after gathering.'”
- Exceptional Virtue and Justice
By God’s grace, she has led the fight for liberty, abolished slavery, ended racial segregation, and magnified individual rights above the arbitrary wishes of a powerful minority. For many years, she has commissioned more missionaries than any other nation on earth, sending out 127,000 missionaries in 2010. In a word, she has become the freest, most prosperous, and most generous nation in modern history.
So, our premise is correct; America is great. She exhibits all of the symptoms of greatness. She is exceptionally superior in her liberty and prosperity. The next question is, “Does the conclusion follow from the premise?” In this context, we could add specificity to the question and ask, “Will America’s greatness, in and of itself, support her through adversity?”
Again, we must begin with a definition. What does it mean to overcome? To overcome something requires superior ability or quality, does it not? For example, if I wrestle one of my friends, I need superior skill or strength to overcome and defeat him. My point is this: the ability to overcome adversity, since it requires superior ability or quality, is merely a symptom of greatness; therefore, to say that America will overcome adversity because she is great is to repeat oneself. One might as well say, “America will be great because she is great.”
We learn something important from the definition of the word great; namely, that greatness cannot be self-preserving. After all, if greatness is marked superiority in quality or character, then it is dependent on the qualities of the thing under question; therefore, greatness cannot exist on its own. It is composed of constituent qualities in an object. If greatness cannot be self-existent and is dependent on the maintenance of its constituent qualities, then it cannot be self-preserving; and, if those things are true, then we can have no confidence that America will remain great simply because she is currently great. It follows, then, that greatness must be maintained by the conscious work of an external agent.
At this point, it is important to dispel a common misconception. It is popular to assert that America is great because she is free, prosperous, generous, safe, peaceful, and replete with opportunity; but, freedom, prosperity, generosity, safety, peace, and opportunity are simply manifestations, or symptoms, of American greatness. You can’t answer a “why” question by pointing to the effects. This, again, would be redundant. It would be like saying, “America is great because she is great.” The “why” is not necessarily dependent on the effects; the effects are products of the “why.” In giving a reason for the effects, we must dig more deeply.
Think of it in the context of a doctor’s method of treating a sick patient. If I go to the doctor with congestion and a sore throat, the doctor would probably not say, “You are sick because you are suffering from congestion and a sore throat.” I could figure as much on my own! The doctor wouldn’t have stated anything helpful; in fact, he would be wrong. I would not be sick because of my symptoms; I would be demonstrating symptoms as a result of my sickness. The doctor would want to get to the cause of the issue — the virus.
Okay, take a deep breath. That was a lot! Let’s simplify it. It goes like this:
- Greatness is dependent on things outside of itself
- Therefore, greatness can’t support itself
- Therefore, America won’t remain great simply because she’s already great
If this has felt like a bit much, just try to think of it in the context of a great wrestler. If he wants to keep overcoming his opponents and winning matches, he must perform various exercises that are designed to build his strength, stamina, and skill in wrestling. He must maintain a skill that is superior to that of his opponents by consciously exerting himself. If he does not do so, his greatness as a wrestler will quickly fade.
When we apply these principles to American greatness, it’s easy to see the problem with thinking that America will overcome simply because she is great. If America is to overcome, we must look back at the qualities and abilities that propelled her to greatness and the virtues and efforts that allowed her to develop those abilities. And, to determine that, we have to examine our history. Once we determine which principles made America great, we must exercise our societal muscles, upholding those principles. If we fail to do so and trust in the false self-preservation of American greatness, that greatness, itself, will soon evade us.
So, it is evident that the common conception of American greatness — that it is self-preserving or self-authenticating — is false; America will not be great simply because she is great. That is a non sequitur — literally, it does not follow.
Okay, we took care of that! Now what? If the conventional theories regarding American greatness seem to be false, just what, exactly, is the source of America’s greatness?
America: Battlefield of the Cosmos
America has been an intellectual laboratory in which nearly every form of government has been tested. If ever a society has experienced pluralism, it has been the United States of America; but, she has only sought a plurality of ideas insomuch as they lent discernment to the investigation of right and wrong. Socialism, communism, libertarianism, republicanism – it has all been tested in the land of the free. So, which one fertilized the soil from which liberty, peace, and prosperity grew in America? Did they all contribute to America’s greatness?
Having observed some of America’s qualities of greatness — exceptional prosperity, exceptional liberty, and exceptional virtue and justice — we can determine some required characteristics of a government that would support America’s greatness. We can then determine which governmental system would be conducive to these qualities.
At the most basic level, what must be required of a government which is compatible with American greatness is that it produces or supports exceptional prosperity, liberty, virtue, and justice. So, what does that look like? We will consider three main points.
- Only a government that leaves to the citizens of its country the absolute right to their property can be exceptionally prosperous.
Government has no money. It only manages that which is granted to it by the people. There are really only two ways a government can obtain money — either by forced taxes (tariffs duties, etc.) or by voluntary taxes (taxes voted on by the people). At the end of the day, the government’s wealth is entirely dependent on the people’s prosperity. It follows, then, that the less the government takes from the citizens, the more prosperous the economy will be; and, the more it takes from the citizens, the less prosperous the economy will be. Government must leave to the individual both the ownership of private property and the complete liberty to do with his property as he wills.
So, a government that is to support exceptional prosperity must do so by leaving to every individual the sole right over the fruits of his labor. “How, then,” you may ask, “may government fund its services? If government can only obtain money through taxes, and if government cannot rightfully deprive a citizen of his property, how may it pay for the operational costs of fulfilling its proper functions?” We will discuss that momentarily.
- Only a government that recognizes and guarantees life, liberty, and property as fundamental human rights and leaves the defense of those rights in the hands of the people can support exceptional liberty.
What is liberty? Liberty is generally defined as the ability to do as one pleases without governmental control, so long as such activity does not infringe on the rights of others. According to Wikipedia,
“Generally, liberty is distinctly differentiated from freedom in that freedom is primarily, if not exclusively, the ability to do as one wills and what one has the power to do; whereas liberty concerns the absence of arbitrary restraints and takes into account the rights of all involved. As such, the exercise of liberty is subject to capability and limited by the rights of others.”
In other words, liberty, as KrisAnne Hall has noted, is freedom with morality; and is posited in the presupposition of inalienable human rights. Liberty is the human will and capability to do anything coupled with the restraint not to do those things that would infringe on the rights of others. This restraint can be either external or volitional; that is, one can be restrained from wrongdoing by a fear of reprisal for his acts or by an internal moral conviction.
In order for liberty to be preserved, this mutual respect of basic human rights must be preserved. Where rights begin to be abrogated, liberty is lost.
- Only a virtuous government is capable of preserving human rights.
If the preservation of liberty is dependent on the mutual respect of basic human rights, then we must consider the source of human rights.
Human rights are metaphysical; that is, they are rooted in immaterial laws. You will not find human rights in physical form anywhere in the universe, from the infinite reaches of outer space to the nucleus of an atom. They exist outside of time, space, and matter. If evolutionary atheism is true, then humans are merely natural accidents, entirely bereft of any meaning beyond their place in the ecosystem.
Human rights are also inherently moral, as they deal with proper relations between humans. Without God, there can be no such thing as morality, much less human rights. Without God, there is only matter; on the other hand, with God, human rights are a given in light of the fact that God created humans in His image. This means that every human being is imbued with a supernatural responsibility not to infringe on the rights of another. He has no right to take from another what has been granted to him by an infinitely higher power. (On this note, I highly recommend a video entitled, “Can You Be Good Without God?” For a more comprehensive, but still accessible, treatment of the issue, I also recommend the chapter on morality from Frank Turek’s Stealing from God.)
This is why, in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Founding Fathers appealed to a higher Power — the Creator — for the substantiation of their ideology. Without God, the entire case for morality and human rights disappears; therefore, to value and preserve human rights is inherently a God-centered work. It is a virtuous work. The sum of this argument is this: if morality and human rights are impossible without God, then government must operate according to God’s principles of government.
These three points can be simplified to just this one point:
- A government that would support American greatness must be based on private property rights and a free market, keep out of individual decisions (so long as those decisions do not infringe on the rights of others), and operate according to Biblical standards of government.
At the end of the day, each of these things is entirely dependent on personal integrity. It takes a certain integrity to use power wisely and well. The battle for liberty is won in the heart, when Christ redeems a poor, wretched sinner from his transgressions and frees him to walk in the liberty of righteousness. That is where sustainable liberty can be found — in the hearts of truly free individuals. So, American greatness, ultimately, is a personal matter; therefore, this article will seek not to posit a governmental system that has created American greatness; but, rather, it will seek to posit a governmental system that has supported that greatness.
Now that we have established a few principles by which government must operate, let’s briefly examine several of the governmental systems that have been tested in the U.S. Before we begin this examination, we must lay a few ground rules that will guide the process. Such we will be the discussion of our next post. Stay tuned!
Blessings in the fight for Liberty!
The following sources apply to the entire series, “A Self-made Nation?”:
-Definition of the word great:
-Pew Research Center: “How Americans compare with the global middle class”:
-Ronald Reagan Quote:
-Ayn Rand Quotes:
-Alexis de Tocqueville Quotes:
-Reasonable Faith: “Can You be Good without God?”
-Christianity Today, “The Surprising Countries Most Missionaries Are Sent From and Go To”:
-U.S. Constitution/Fourth Amendment:
-James Madison Property Quote:
-John Adams Property Quote:
The Pilgrims’ Economics:
-Michael Franc/The Heritage Foundation, “Pilgrims Beat ‘Communism’ with Free Market”:
-Daniel/Young Patriots for Liberty, “Why Did America Abandon Socialism?”:
-David McAlvany, “What the Pilgrims Can Teach Our Kids About Free Market Economics”:
-Mr. Gigliotti, “Pilgrim Economics!”
Sources for the Required Qualities of Government:
KrisAnne Hall on Liberty: Liberty & Freedom – The KrisAnne Hall Show
General Conceptions of Liberty:
Definition of virtue:
Anthony Davies, “Where does the government get the money it spends?” Mercatus Center, July 31, 2010:
Information on Systems of Government Tested in America:
Definition of Socialism:
Definition of Communism:
Wikipedia, “Marx’s theory of history”:
Definition of Libertarianism:
For more information libertarianism:
Quotes on Democracy:
Benjamin Franklin, “A Republic, if you can keep it”:
Benjamin Franklin, “a virtuous people quote”:
“Two wolves and a lamb” quote:
More information on the Non-aggression Principle: