By Joe Registrato, Contributing Editor
There’s a lot of talk this political season about “making American great again,” and I got to wondering exactly what it means to be great, and if it is even possible that we have somehow lost our greatness. And if we have lost it, would it be possible for one person to get it back?
About the closest I have been able to come to a meaning for “greatness” is embodied in a phrase that has been repeated by several of our former presidents and incorrectly attributed to a famous French person that goes something like this: “America is great because America is good, and if America ceases being good it will also cease being great.”
Now while the exact origin of this neat little phrase may be in doubt (some people think it was first uttered by Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote a book called Democracy in America, although a word search of the original document has failed to find the phrase), there is something about it that rings true, makes me feel that it is right on target.
The idea that “greatness” is the product of “goodness” to me describes the feeling that most Americans get when we do something that simply needs doing because we are all human beings, because we share a common lineage, because we are no longer beasts in the jungle but live in a society that shares a single environment and a single body of knowledge, and because some of us at least understand that while we may not always agree, we – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddists, Hindis, Confusionsts; black or white; Hispanic, Eastern or Western European, Arab, Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, native American, and Vietnamese and all the rest — all the humans, they are all in this thing together.
Together. Keep that word in mind. Because when we disagree about something, it causes us not to be together.
But usually, in times of need, when people are being oppressed or attacked somewhere in the world, or when a natural disaster like a tsunami or an earthquake strikes, Americans stand together and “do the right thing,” even if sometimes we are disappointed in the result. World Wars I and II are examples. So is the killing of Osama Bin Laden. So is the Vietnam War. So is the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So are the relief efforts to countries that suffer natural disasters, such as Japan, Haiti, Honduras in 1974, Nicaragua in 1972.
So by that definition, the good things we continue to do almost without even thinking about them, continues to keep America great. Where did it come from? How did it get started? And has it gone away?
The full quote of a speech by President Eisenhower, who said he was quoting de Tocqueville, was this: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers — and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce — and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution — and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
Even though the definition of “good” does not jump out at you, it appears that whoever came up with this language, which has been repeated by presidents Clinton and Reagan in addition to Eisenhower, thought that “goodness in America” started out and got its momentum in church.
Which brings me to Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, considered by some to be America’s greatest president, in a speech to 1,000 delegates to the Illinois Republican Convention in 1858 said, “A house divided itself cannot stand.”
Lincoln was referring to the fact that at the time, just about half of America was not just condoning but was actively engaged in the business of slavery, which Lincoln and many other Americans saw as something that was definitely not good, decidedly bad.
Slavery was thought of as so bad by some people that America fought a war over whether, in this country, it would be okay for some human beings to own other human beings, buy and sell them, keep them as property, trade them for a profit. Now Lincoln certainly was by all accounts a great intellect and a great president, but the “house divided” line was not original. According to the gospels of at Matthew and Mark, these were the words of Jesus Christ. Matthew 12:25; Mark 3:25.
Not everybody thought slavery was a bad thing. So there you have it. Disagreement. We were not together on the issue, so to settle the question we engaged in the bloodiest war in the history of the United States.
Of course in hindsight, it seems rather insane to go to war over something that virtually no thinking, rational person today would even consider possible. But think carefully. It was only about 75 years ago when one human being, one person mind you, convinced an entire nation that it would be a good idea if an entire race of people was wiped off the face of the earth. So bad ideas sometimes have a good run.
But back to good. In my mind, good starts with really simple stuff, such as the commandments of Richard Fulghum in his classic book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. These things include share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them. But the one right on point for our purposes was number 13, which says, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.”
There it is again. That word. Together.
“Goodness” is part of a system of laws and rules that keep people safe and punishes criminals while recognizing the frailties of human existence, one that makes allowances for the mistakes of youth, the compulsions of mental illness and the inexact means of measuring intelligence. This system of justice includes safeguards of people’s rights, made up at the beginning but refined over the years, such as no “unreasonable” searches and seizures, the right to remain silent when confronted by authority, and the right to a lawyer if charged with a crime, even if you can’t afford to pay one.
American kindness has always held sacred the theory of inclusiveness and openness to people from other countries and has always welcomed those whose home country may have turned them out. That is the message of poet Emma Lazarus on display at the base of the Statute of Liberty:
Give me your Tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Closeness seems like a feeling that is at least right next to goodness, and therefore, there has always been an aversion in America to walls and fences, which are by design meant to either keep people in or keep people out.
A famous American poet, Robert Frost, once wrote a poem that started off this way:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That sends the frozen ground swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun
Another famous American, President Ronald Reagan, expressed his view of another wall when he urged the leader of the very undemocratic country about a wall the Soviets built not to keep people out, but to fence them in, when he said in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Two years later, the wall came tumbling down and Germany has become a united, independent ally of America.
See, we don’t like walls. They keep us from being together.
Now America’s “goodness” did not come upon this country overnight. That business about the right to remain silent and no unreasonable searches was written in to our constitution at the beginning, that would be 1788, right around 228 years ago; nor has our “greatness” disappeared from the souls of Americans just because some bully says it has.
I see the American brand of goodness every day at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. I saw it in Nicaragua when I went there as a newspaper reporter in 1972 when the people of Tampa and Miami and all over Florida sent millions of dollars in relief supplies when an earthquake struck the city of Managua at about 5 a.m., causing the roofs of houses to collapse, killing an estimated 10,000 people as they slept. I saw the same outpouring of “good” when Hurricane Fifi killed thousands of people in Honduras two years later.
So there is no doubt in my mind America remains great because America remains good. Even if by some ugly event, such as electing a person as dangerous and mentally unstable as Adolph Hitler, we had “lost” our “goodness,” a concept that seems ludicrous when examined under the light of reason, it is not something that could be restored by any one person, and certainly not a person who believes that insults and personal attacks against others make him smarter or wiser or more capable of leading than anyone else.
If all we know about America’s greatness is that it comes from its goodness, and if all we know of goodness is that for the good to thrive people must band together, then we must reject any person who would divide us, who would keep us apart by building walls, by inciting hatred among its citizens, by splitting rather than mending, by insulting and attacking good people whose only sin was to speak their mind.
Whoever said the words doesn’t matter. The meaning is unmistakable. America is great because it is good, and if we cease being good, we will cease being great.
We should allow no voice, no matter how strident and course, no matter how loudly it speaks from an ugly and divisive platform, no matter how much hatred it spews, to reach us, to keep us from our appointed course. We should and we must treat that voice for what it is: a bully and a demagogue, neither of which has any place in a good, great country like America.
Joe Registrato, a veteran lawyer and newspaper editor, is contributing editor at AliveTampaBay.com.