What is greatness? As a professional football coach, the best players I have been around, the great players I have seen were not the ones who never made a mistake, were not the ones who were always perfect. Does anyone think that Michael Jordan never made a bad play, or Tiger Woods never missed a shot, or Tom Brady never made a bad read? Of course, they did. But what makes the great players great is that they rarely make the same mistake twice. The great ones all have a highly tuned self-correcting mechanism. They’re able to make adjustments in real time, correct the mistake, and move on. The average players make the same mistakes again and again. They do not have the ability to self-correct. They get stuck in the past thinking about a mistake, beat themselves up, and make more mistakes in the future.
The great people in life, the best in all fields also have that self-correcting mechanism. They are not perfect. They make mistakes, but they learn from them, fix them, and move on. They do not dwell in the past. They learn from the past, and look to the future. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, all had that ability. And when we analyze the great people of history, whether it be athletes, inventors, philosophers, business owners, we focus on their accomplishments and not dwell on their failures. And many times, their failures were a necessary step in the advancement to their greatness.
America’s greatness should be viewed in the same light as these great people. American history is not perfect. It is filled with many failures, many serious mistakes. Likewise, the founders of our country were flawed human beings. They made mistakes, had some serious blind spots and character flaws, but their greatness is not seen in how good and moral people they were, but in what they were able to accomplish, creating the greatest political system in human history. At the moment when they could have installed themselves as Kings or autocrats, they implemented a system truly designed to liberate and empower the people.
Their political philosophies and their vision that set the foundation of our system of government, were not re-branded old ideas. They were cutting edge, the tip of the spear political philosophies. At a point of history when over 95% of humanity was either in forced servitude, subject to a King or dictator, or oppressed in a feudal system, when the concepts of individual and human rights was not even part of the lexicon, they instituted a system of government with radical concepts like freedom, human rights, equal rights, self-government, self-determination, autonomy, government by the consent of the governed. These concepts which we take for granted, which have set hundreds of millions of people free were, at the time of our founding, as foreign to human thought as quantum mechanics is to a 9th grade Algebra class. They were truly ahead of their time, so far ahead that even now over 200 hundred years later, many countries around the world still have not caught up.
The founders knew that human beings were flawed. James Madison wrote in the Federalist, “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” And this is why they built a self-correcting mechanism into the system. They wrote a Constitution, established a Supreme Court, and created an amendment process designed to fix past mistakes, move the country forward, and ensure minority rights. These processes have been used time and again throughout the years by our civil rights movements to guarantee the rights to the very people who were denied them at our country’s founding.
No outside force was ever needed to eradicate our country from our sins. No foreign nation invaded us to rid the United States of slavery or Jim Crow. We did that. That came from within us, through a civil war and cultural movements, which were inspired and validated by the words and visions of our founders. For as flawed and imperfect humans as the founders were, we, as a nation, as human beings, owe them a debt of gratitude for the human rights that the citizens of this country enjoy today, and the people of the world who long to immigrate here hope for.
When looking at American history, instead of focusing on slavery, we should celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment which abolished slavery. Instead of only seeing Jim Crow, we should commemorate the land mark Supreme Court decisions which overturned segregation laws. Instead of pointing to the time when women were not allowed to vote, we should honor the passing of 19th amendment guaranteeing women the vote. Instead of only seeing the denial of civil rights to certain groups, we should applaud the Civil Rights Movement, the 1964 Civil Rights Law, 1965 Voting Rights Law guaranteeing civil rights to all people.
We were not a finished nation at our inception, and we are not a finished nation now. We were and will always be a work in progress. I do not judge America based on what we were, but on how much progress we have made. And the progress of going from enslaving black people to electing a black President was a tremendous leap forward, and a sign of America’s greatness. And those types of leaps forward can be seen throughout our great history. We should never forget the sins of the past, but we should not let our past sins define and divide us, but rather allow our many redemptions and our shared vision for a better future define and unify us, as a Nation, and as a people.