An obituary for American Greatness, 1776-2017 - Macleans.ca
 

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 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.


 

An obituary for American Greatness, 1776-2017

  1. Well actually it was no different than us

    They just had Hollywood.

  2. A sad story and it is painful to see a few people achieving it by self destruction and the republicans doing it both houses and by doing none of the things the swore to do when elected.

  3. America’s greatness actually ended in 2008. Hopefully Trump will step down and with Pence as the replacement he can get on without the drama to fix the mess Obama took 8 years to develop.

    • Don’t be blaming Obama for this…..

      • Oh there’s lots of blame to cast at Obama.
        From 1776-2008 (232 years) the USA accumulated 10 Trillion in debt
        From 2008-2016 (8 years) the USA accumulated ANOTHER 10 Trillion in debt.
        It’s staggering Emily. Just try to wrap your mind around those numbers.

        • Well fighter jets cost more than plows dude. It isn’t 1776 anymore.

          Now check the GDP

          • Right – it was all those fighter jets that Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama bought.
            Economic growth fell from 4.5% under Reagan to <1% under Obama.

        • Obama is the best president the US ever had

          You’re just doing your usual mash-up.

          • You just can’t argue with unjustified opinion.

          • Nope…..and you are loaded with unjustified opinion

    • Jerome, have those #s been adjusted for inflation? Regardless, national debt is not the sole reason for America’s decline. The purposeful dumbing down of the populace is also to blame (as are many other factors). Obama and every president and politician before played a role. Blaming Obama does not negate the fact that Trump is the nail in the coffin.

      • I didn’t provide any data-that was Chip. However, in addition to the debt mess Obama generated which Chip noted, Obama had a few other notable failings.
        -there was NO improvement in unemployment rate under Obama-it fell by the same 3% who quit looking for work.
        -job creation historically averaged 2.4%. Under Obama, it was 1%.
        -labor force productivity improvement was cut in half under Obama largely because of unnecessary regulations.
        -household income fell(inflation adjusted) declined by 3%.
        -the number of people on food-stamps doubled to an all time high.
        These were all from a comprehensive study undertaken by Harvard University.
        In addition to those that can be demonstrated with numerics, he had the worst race relations since the 60’s and his approach to foreign policy was a disaster wherever he applied his magic. And his flagship Obamacare has become unaffordable to all but the wealthy.
        So, we had a very articulate, nice man with no experience managing or leading anything who most political analysts believe is close to tied with Jimmy Cater as the poorest performing president of all time.

    • What happened in 2008? America elected a black man as president. An educated, intelligent, intellectual, articulate, passionate, well-meaning, hardworking, motivational BLACK man that showed other black boys and men that they were more than the miserable degenerates white america perceived them as (and really wanted and encouraged them to be). So to rectify that, you elect a pompous, narcissistic, ignorant, stupid, immature, selfish, LYING fool to lead the supposedly most powerful nation in the world? So, moral of YOUR story: The worst white man is better than than the best black man on any day. NO. That’s not true and TRUMP will prove so. Trump’s win is not a victory and his supporters are on the wrong side of history ( a la the Nazis, slavers, segregationists, etc.).

      • Obama is bi-racial. Have you read any of his biographies?

        • Nicely said, Rose.

  4. Eisenhower warned Americans to be wary of the “Deep State”, or military industrial complex. The American people did not listen, and the American elites became consumed with greed.

    • Eisenhower was a long time ago.

  5. The only proof that is relevant is that about 1/2 the American people voted for DT. Gotta be as smart as a bag of hammers to do that.

    • That’s because they voted for Obama the time before and knew Clinton was just as incapable as Obama.

  6. America owes its former greatness to its inventors, innovators, risk-takers & founding fathers.
    Greatness died when financial wizards replaced good honest hard work & insatiable greed became the order of the day. Result: death of the middle class, $20T of debt, endless war, rebirth of racism (never really died), concentration of wealth (62 individuals control as much as 3.5b people).

  7. America stopped being ‘great’ when it lost its first ‘world’ war … in Korea. After 1954 it has been ‘the skids’ for American political prestige.

  8. This type of obituary on the death of America has been written many times, usually by Canadians.
    America has survived civil war, depression, political scandal , riots and always manages to come
    out stronger and more vibrant than ever. US higher education remains the worlds best, its spacecraft
    continue to send stunning images back home from the depths of outer space, Google, Microsoft
    Apple and Amazon are just recent examples of US innovation and success with more to come .
    The US is in one of its occasional down phases, but anyone who bets against the US is truly a fool.

    • Well you keep telling yourself that, and it’ll just prolong the misery.

      ALL societies in history have peaked and then collapsed at one time or another.

      Some of them get back up again. Some of them don’t.