January 8, 2022

What Makes America Great?

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

We’re free to choose. That’s it!

Of course, we’re also blessed with a riches of natural resources, but that doesn’t really make us great. That just makes us lucky. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck envied us and once famously proclaimed, “The Americans are a very lucky people. They’re bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors, and to the east and west by fish.”

We didn’t create the bountiful resources with which this land is blessed. The natural resources were just here. Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mozambique are also pretty rich in natural resources. So are Venezuela, Russia, Saudi Arabia, The Dominican Republic, India, and many other nations. Their largess of natural resources, however, makes none of them great. Nor is it our riches of natural resources that make us a great nation. They may make us a wealthy country, but not a great nation. Providence made us rich in natural resources. Men of wisdom and judgment made us great, and only men and women of wisdom and judgment can keep us great.

Alexis de Tocqueville marveled nearly two hundred years ago, and the late economist, Milton Friedman, noted a generation ago in his marvelous book, “Free to Choose,” that America is home to a people who are simply free to choose their own way in life, to make their own decisions about what they will do with their lives, and free to march to the beat of any drummer. We have a Constitution that guarantees our freedom to speak, to write, to worship, to vote, to bear arms to defend our freedoms, to refuse to prostrate ourselves before an accusing government, the right to peacefully protest, and the right to petition the government for or against almost anything.

Nothing really makes us great other than that broad freedom to choose that was bequeathed to us by a small handful of men with names that are well known to every American school child like Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin, and some less well known like James Wilson, John Rutledge, Benjamin Rush, Charles Pinckney, Oliver Ellsworth, and Gouverneur Morris among others. They, collectively, dared to create a society where, essentially, everyone had free reign to chart their own course through life. Who had ever heard of such a country?

Well, in short order, almost everyone in the world had heard of this new country. And men and women came from across the globe to become Americans, and with them came the greatest burst of creativity, energy, and productivity the world has ever known. By 1890, the United States had grown from a start-up nation at the dawn of the nineteenth century to the world’s largest economy. Today, about half of all the Nobel prizes won by the top ten recipient nations have been won by American scientists. Americans gave the world hundreds and then thousands and then millions of new products; 374,000 patents were granted last year alone. The mechanical reaper, the cotton gin, steamships, sewing machines, telegraphs, television, automobiles, airplanes, spaceships, and advances in medicine ameliorating and eradicating disease are but a few examples of the innovation America has introduced to the world. And just this week we said farewell to the oldest veteran from our Greatest Generation, the one that saved the world from authoritarian fascism.

But here’s the thing. There is no invisible hand in political affairs that leads people to make wise decisions such as Adam Smith claimed with respect to economic affairs in his famous treatise, “Wealth of Nations.” Economics, essentially, deals with the allocation of scarce or finite resources. Politics, however, deals with the raw amassing and exercise of power.

America and the American People have generally chosen pretty well. Generally, but far from always.

For Example:

* The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 allowed the government to arrest and imprison anyone, citizen or not, who spoke out against the federal government. 

* The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was genocidal, plain, and simple.

* The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a cruel and shameful piece of legislation that enabled slave owners to hunt down escaped slaves. It penalized anyone anywhere in America who gave assistance to fleeing slaves.

*The Volstead Act in 1919 made the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal.

*The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 levied a 20% tariff on over 20,000 products, causing retaliatory tariffs and worsening the great depression.

*In 1942, following Pearl Harbor, we incarcerated approximately 120,000 loyal Japanese-American men, women, and children, none of whom had done anything wrong.

*The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 gave President Lyndon Johnson authority to wage war without the approval of Congress in retaliation for a fabricated North Vietnamese naval attack that never happened.

The Great Choosing

We have been here before, at a moment of great choosing in America. Until 1920 we denied women the right to vote in America. And in our not-so-distant past, we tolerated a Jim Crow racial caste system that was de rigueur throughout much of our nation.

Eight decades ago, we had a decidedly pro-Nazi, so-called America First movement that tried to keep us from joining the allies in the fight to stop Hitler.

And, one year ago, the nation experienced an attempted violent coup at the Capitol in an effort to stop the peaceful transfer of power in the United States.

And so now the American People, free to choose, wrestle with perhaps the greatest need to choose since 1860. Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming defined the choice the nation now faces. Americans can embrace fidelity either to an authoritarian and an authoritarian movement, or fidelity to the United States Constitution. We can do one or the other, but we cannot do both. We, as a nation, are either one team pursuing that more perfect union that our founders bequeathed to us, or we are two opposing teams determined to fight to the bitter end, and if so, the only guarantee we have is that the end will, indeed, be bitter.

America is at, or near, a historic inflection point.

For the first time in our history, we have a political movement that, without a shred of legitimate evidence, has committed itself to the proposition that we have an illegitimate president. Their leader, the immediate past President of the United States, announced in 2016 and again in 2020 that he could only lose the Presidential election if the vote were rigged. It was always to be his excuse for losing because he lacks the capacity to accept defeat. It is as much a character flaw as it is a political strategy. So, before, during, and after the last election, he and his acolytes have drummed home the election conspiracy, the election hoax, the rigged election theme, and tens of millions of our fellow Americans believe it. The former President demands that every official or candidate in his Party embrace that farce or face his wrath. With very few exceptions, they embrace the farce.

Today, we face a historic inflection point. And so, in the weeks and months ahead, America will face a moment of great choosing, and our continued stature, either as a great nation or as a once-great nation, will be determined. We’ve faced this dilemma of choosing before. It was 167 years ago, on June 16, 1858, that a candidate named Lincoln running for the United States Senate addressed the Illinois Republican Convention and warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The nation, Lincoln was warning, had a choice to make. And, regardless of Party, so do we. America is either a house united or a house divided against itself.

We Americans are free to choose.

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7 responses to “What Makes America Great?”

  1. Perry says:

    Excellent commentary on our failures rather than our successes. As a nation we are always
    going to error, but we have always found the means to correct our errors. Must it always be by
    legislation or should we look to religion, or to the corporate giants which today control more and more of our thinking and our future? The answer lies in our ability to always strive for
    improvement in thought and deed by individuals.

    • Stephen Prover says:

      Perry,
      I do not think the author of this commentary is even remotely suggesting the solution to Donald Trump lies in legislation… Nor does it lie in a host of platitudes… Republicans, (such as yourself ?) must stand up and speak out.

    • Steve Prover says:

      Perry,
      I do not think the author of this commentary is even remotely suggesting the solution to Donald Trump lies in legislation… Nor does it lie in a host of platitudes… Republicans, (such as yourself ?) must stand up and speak out.

  2. Ray Galante says:

    The failure of Republican Party leadership to disavow Trump is shocking; such weakness. Who arises besides Cheney’s daughter?

  3. Stephen Prover says:

    Outstanding, well crafted commentary… You hit the proverbial nail on its head.

  4. Shirley says:

    Hal, you’ve done it again. History was one of my worst subjects in school and you’ve made it so much more comprehensible. And you’re right on with today’s current events. I look forward to reading your essays.

  5. Lloyd Levin says:

    Hal, you summarized the moment we are in and placed it in the spotlight it requires. I fear for the future of our country and pray that we will act to ensure our survival as a democracy. Please keep reminding us of our need to act as responsible citizens!

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