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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Best. Man. Ever.

The Atlantic recently came out with a list of their 100 most influential figures in American history. Here’s a quick look at the top 10 and the short blurb that accompanied each:
1. Abraham Lincoln. He saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America’s second founding.

2. George Washington. He made the United States possible—not only by defeating a king, but by declining to become one himself.

3. Thomas Jefferson. The author of the five most important words in American history: “All men are created equal.”

4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and then he proved it.

5. Alexander Hamilton. Soldier, banker, and political scientist, he set in motion an agrarian nation’s transformation into an industrial power.

6. Benjamin Franklin. The Founder-of-all-trades—scientist, printer, writer, diplomat, inventor, and more; like his country, he contained multitudes.

7. John Marshall. The defining chief justice, he established the Supreme Court as the equal of the other two federal branches.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. His dream of racial equality is still elusive, but no one did more to make it real.

9. Thomas Edison. It wasn’t just the lightbulb; the Wizard of Menlo Park was the most prolific inventor in American history.

10. Woodrow Wilson. He made the world safe for U.S. interventionism, if not for democracy.
While this list could provide enough fodder for a century-long debate, what I’m most interested in is their choice for the #1 slot.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Lincoln. I live in Illinois, where Honest Abe comes in second place to no one, maybe not even Jesus. And I surely appreciate all he did for this country at the most challenging point in its history.

But when we’re talking top dog, I’m all about George Washington. Not just number one on the list of most influential Americans, but among most significant political leaders anywhere. Possibly even number one among every human being. Ever.

Before you write me off as nuts, look at it this way. The history of world governments and leaders is one long tale of seizing power and not letting go, either by keeping it in the hands of cronies or heirs. No truly powerful nation ever went more than a generation or two without developing an elite monopoly or a bloody coup.

Then came the American Revolution—certainly a defining moment in history where a pool of remarkable talent, intelligence and leadership kicked out an empire and began a wave of modern democracy that’s still spreading today.

But talented groups of men have overthrown governments before; the key here was that once this elite group obtained power, they handed much of it to one man, to do what he wished. (Sure, there were checks and balances written in the liner notes, but historically speaking, truly powerful figures can easily override checks and balances, often permanently.)

So what did Washington do with this power? Were he like every other military and political leader in world history, he would have consolidated it, wiped out his enemies and assured fortune for himself and his family for generations.

Instead, the near-unanimously elected Washington served out his first term, easily won a second, and then, after eight successful, popular, glorious years…he quit.

Think about that for a moment. His people wanted to crown him king, and instead he voluntarily returned to civilian life, allowing America to choose another leader, one he would recognize, respect and support.

When else has a strong, popular leader (and a general to boot) of a potential world power refused the crown and passed the torch with no blood, no pressure, no turmoil? By my count: never. Not once. Not even close.

What Washington did was no less than completely break the cycle of power that had run unabated for millennia, and set the world on a new path. He took power out of those who seized it and gave it back to the masses. He set a precedent so remarkable, modern civilization is forever in his debt.

Today, America is the most powerful nation in history. And as the globe continues to democratize step by step, we must appreciate how different the world would be had Washington given in to the same pressure that plagued every leader the came before him.

What a badass.


Anonymous tet said...

This becomes particularly poignant when compared to modern politicians, who begin working out strategies to stay in power moments after being elected to office.

Makes me sick.

Madison belongs on that list of 10 instead of Wilson, I think. I believe that the intervention by the United States in the First World War may well have helped set the stage for the Second. I consider him one of our worst presidents for that reason.


Anonymous MrIzzy said...,0,2619587.story

Blogger Gordon the Gnome said...

Tet, I actually liked Wilson (like Da Vinci, he had grand ideas without the proper tools to execute them)... but I completely agree about Madison.

Between the Federalist Papers, the Constitution and his presidency, Madison's done more than enough to earn Top Ten status... I'd even put him as high as #6. (I'd put him at #5, but I'm a shameless Hamilton fan.)

Blogger Gordon the Gnome said...

mrizzy: thanks for the link! When I read that average Americans often see Washington as boring, that's when I want to point out what he did after his presidency: went on to start up one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gordon you are right on the shameless love of Hamilton. I love Teddy Roosevelt and feel that he did a lot to improve the economy in terms of his trust busting. Also I feel that overall he was the greatest adventuring president due to his tenacity in starting the bull moose party and his love of safaris. I would also consider adding John Quincy Adams to the top 10 or at least the top 15 due to his fight for human and civil rights and his ardent service as not only a President but a Congressman as well. His statements during the Amistad trial are exactly what Jefferson wrote only personified.

Anonymous P. Pirx said...

Yes, Gordon. I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous drew said...

"No truly powerful nation ever went more than a generation or two without developing an elite monopoly or a bloody coup."

There are a lot of people who think the current state of America is proof that the American way of life is the culmination of efforts at nation-governing.

After we won our independence from Britain, the wealthy North began treating the South and West the same way that England had treated us, although with nominally more voice. We then went for almost 100 years, after which we fought one of the bloodiest civil wars the world has seen. Our history is only somewhat unique in that our Civil War resulted in the government staying in power and not really changing their policies at all.

So, 100 years, bloody revolution, and then another century and a half spotted with wars. That's the most successful government we've ever seen?

What about the Tokugawa Shogunate, which experienced TOTAL peace for two and a half centuries? Or the 300-year Pax Romana? The 3-century Tang Dynasty? Or perhaps the Han dynasty, during which the most advanced civilization in the world at the time lived for 400 years without any significant struggles, either from within or against threatening armies from outside?

I realize you said "OR developing an elite monopoly," and since these governments certainly had an elite monopoly, I'm not directly contradicting your statement. However, I do think it was implied that an elite monopoly is a poor system of government, and that is what I am addressing.

I also realize things have changed over the centuries, and you can't necessarily compare our goverment to those of the past. I just think it is premature to cite ourselves as an example of overwhelmingly successful system of rule.

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