What makes America great?

Terry Garlock

You may have noticed the echo chamber of daily gossip, otherwise known as TV news, has been chattering about New York Gov. (D) Andrew M. Cuomo. It seems he broke a cardinal rule of liberals when he said what he actually thought: “We are not going to make America great again. It was never that great.”

In his speech, made on the occasion of signing a bill enacting new penalties for sex trafficking in New York, he went on to say that America would be great whenever … and here is where we pause so liberals can use a railroad spike to nail their manifesto of grievance demands to the transgender bathroom door.

Gov. Cuomo at first apparently did not realize his fawning local audience could not give him cover since his goof had been televised. He has been back-walking his comments with softening explanations after incoming fire from conservatives who saw an opportunity not to be squandered. The right has been peppering him with patriotic finger-pointing.

My fellow conservatives might want to pepper me, too, because I think the right gets “America’s Greatness” just as wrong as the left, though their sin of mis-directed chest-thumping is a far lesser sin than the left’s relentless denigration of our country.

If I haven’t lost you yet, ask yourself, “If America was great, why?”

I think to answer that question you have to look back hundreds of years to life in Europe, the western civilization from which America was launched after this “New World” became known to them. For an agrarian civilization needing land for crops and domesticated herds, Europe was somewhat crowded with over 100 million people. The vast majority of them were commoners, with scant chance to ever own land, subsisting on a meager diet of mainly grains with an occasional treat of vegetables, fruits or meats, laboring for the benefit of the few privileged nobility who owned the land they farmed.

The ruling class lived well, some getting wealthier through trade with China over the Silk Road, bringing valuable spices, silks, etc., while keeping their boot firmly on the neck of the common people. They needed that wealth to fund the building of commerce centers, castles, and raising armies to fight each other since tensions were high with untrustworthy “foreigners” relatively close by, never mind the thirst for conquest and power that springs from human nature.

Feeding a relatively dense European population became increasingly difficult. Rivers and streams were heavily fished and fouled, well-known ocean fisheries were under pressure, forests were incrementally decimated for ship-building lumber and local construction as well as fuel for heat and cooking. In the limited forests remaining, hunting was a sport reserved for royalty, and a commoner would risk his life by cutting down a tree or hunting to put food on his table.

Before Columbus sailed in search of a western path to the Orient with funding from Spain’s Queen Isabella, the Turks had cut off the Silk Road and Isabella was eager to be the first to find an alternate route for trade with countries far to the east. Neither she nor Columbus had any idea the depth of bounty he was about to stumble into. Even after multiple voyages, I doubt Columbus himself ever comprehended the vast resources that would, over time, become available to the ruling elite in Europe.

Who knows how many thousands of miles there were of inshore coastlines off the American eastern seaboard, plus so many islands, teeming thick with untold species of sea life for food?

Forests appeared endless, with abundant wildlife, a source for the wood and masts to build European ships. Beaver and other fur to feed European fashion appetites was plentiful, and massive herds of bison, elk, caribou, etc., would not be known for even more hundreds of years. Unknown species of crops, especially corn and potatoes, awaited discovery as new staples. Realization of this and so much more happened over a very long time.

With the return of ships to Spain bringing home samples of New World resources, word spread fast through Europe, sparking ambition among commoners who had little hope of shaking off control by the privileged few, imaginations at work about vast unclaimed land and dreams of owning property themselves. Whether seeking opportunity, freedom of religion or other reasons, over time Europeans, mostly British, began to sail west toward the New World, risking their lives with hearts full of hope.

Very hearty people hacked a life out of wilderness, and most did ultimately turn out to be land-owners. They were British subjects but fiercely independent and identified their colony as their country. After extended conflict with British King George III, the colonies banded together to fight the Revolutionary War, thereby gaining American Independence. Four years after the official end of the war the colonies-turned-states sent representatives to Philadelphia in 1787 to a Constitutional Convention.

The American Constitution that resulted from those meetings was a milestone in western civilization. It had a bi-cameral legislature with the House of Representatives elected based on population, while the Senate had two representatives from each state, thereby balancing the concerns of large vs. small states. The judiciary was independent, and the executive had limited powers.

There were checks and balances among the three branches, and the 10th Amendment, last of the 10 amendments comprising the Bill of Rights included in the original ratified Constitution, clearly says the federal government has ONLY the powers enumerated in the Constitution, with all other powers retained by the states or the people.

The design intentionally avoided the direct vote of a democracy, since the founders feared mob rule by the passions of the moment. Rather, they designed a republic, wherein we elect representatives to be the cooler heads to make government decisions on our behalf.

The rule of law was paramount, with no provision for privileged people. Private property was protected. The pursuit of self-interest to gain wealth, within the law, was presumed.

There were many flaws. Half the states and their representatives were slaveholders. Women did not have a vote. Men who didn’t own land didn’t have a vote. Some of the representatives might have been well-disguised scoundrels.

But what they accomplished with this Constitution was a remarkable departure from the patterns of privilege and oppression set in Europe. Our founders designed a system that denied a royal class, and instead they built a way for us to govern ourselves.

Despite the founders’ imperfections, despite how Washington, D.C., has violated this Constitution in so many ways over the last century, the achievement of this Constitution paved the way for ordinary, common Americans to pursue their own self-interest.

By competing with each other to make new and better inventions, they stoked the fire of an economic powerhouse and turned on the lights of the world. Some became wealthy, some failed, but they were free to try.

All over the world, common people with the boots of their betters on their necks slowly noticed, and people in one country after another shook off their shackles and designed their own method to govern themselves. It hasn’t happened everywhere yet, and we here in America have work to do to return to the principles of our own Constitution.

Nevertheless, turning on the beacon of self-government in the late eighteenth century, thereby inspiring other people in their own countries to do likewise, and becoming strong enough to aid and give protection to other countries, that is what made America great.

I don’t want to hear liberals denigrate America with their many flavors of grievances. I don’t want to hear conservatives declare America to be great as if our citizens are somehow superior to those in every other country. I don’t want to hear about anyone in government tweeting a damn thing.

What I do want is a return to respecting and complying with our Constitution, which is what I think of and hope for when I hear the slogan, “Make America great again.”

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. He can be reached at tlg.opinion@gmail.com.]


  1. By almost any measure of personal liberty or economics, America has always been great. There is room for improvement in any society, and there have been historical problems that beset our nation. That doesn’t diminish America’ overall standing among nations. Even the current president who denigrates everything and everybody who does not worship him cannot diminish America. We will even survive this.

    Brewster – Good to see you back on the blog. It’s been a while.

    • STF – ya, never could make Facebook work. Proceed with caution when you boast that denigrating everything and everybody that doesn’t worship what society deems worthy cannot diminish America. There is plenty of denigrating going on in America today, especially if you appear to be sitting in the wrong pew during worship time.

  2. Talking about lapses into insanity. If you believe that the citizens of this country held that America had never lost one bit of greatness until January 20,2009 then it appears you are the disgruntled Caucasian since Obama himself stated on that day there was a “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable”, that there was a “a sapping of confidence across our land” due to “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”. Your faith does not appear great at all with statements like that.

  3. Being the oldest extant democratic republic, the United States never ceased to be great. Only disgruntled Caucasians who couldn’t accept that a black man became president assumed that America had lost its greatness. I believe that America is so great that it will even survive the current resident of the White House. I have great faith in America, despite occasional lapses into election insanity.