Throughout history, various nations have been considered “great,” usually as a result of sheer size or power of the government. Size and power is one view of greatness, but another is “remarkable or superior in character or quality”. The ancient Chinese dynasties, the Roman Empire, and even the former Soviet Union would fall under the first definition, due to their large geographical extent and overwhelming governments, and certainly had a considerable effect on human history.
Those countries wouldn’t necessarily fall under the second category, though, at least not for significant portions of their histories. They have all had their accomplishments, many of which are reflected in present day culture and society, but the power of the government itself limited the benefits of their achievements for their most of their own subjects, those who should have been the direct and immediate beneficiaries.
Modern, western, rich societies, where large swaths of the population participate in wealth accumulation, didn’t flourish until the concept of the individual, with rights and dignity, started to take hold. Even in the Roman Empire, much of what was good and useful and stood the test of time, arose for that very reason. As bad as the Roman government might have been for the peoples they defeated and subjected, actual Roman citizens had rights. Even Saint Paul of the New Testament two thousand years ago, as a Roman citizen, pressed his rights and was able to take his case to Rome on appeal. Roman law provides a significant basis for the western common law that we take for granted.
Societies where rights are recognized and protected have been around for thousands of years, but, in almost all cases, those rights were limited to a small segment of society. That segment prospered, while others languished, victims of slavery, assault, and theft, to which they had no defense. The smaller the group of people protected from depredation, the more limited the extent of greatness in the second sense.
In order for anyone to prosper, that person needs to be secure, not only in his or her person, but also in his or her property. When people are allowed to keep the fruits of their labors and use them as they wish, they will likely use it for their own betterment in some way. Even if some individuals squander what they have, those who don’t constitute the growing wealth of society.
America is a great nation. Its large geographical size can be attributed, at least in part, to the some of the same shenanigans and politics engaged in by other great powers, so it fits the first definition. America, however, the institution, as opposed to the political entities, was built upon a concept that tends to give it and its people a remarkable or superior in character or quality. Though all western countries prospered for the same reason, the American idea that every individual has the same rights, whether a pauper or a high government official, is embodied as the foundation. For all of its failures and inadequacies, that idea has served the American people well.
While slavery was originally tolerated as a compromise to get the Constitution ratified, that was subsequently corrected, and now all people have rights to their lives, liberty, and property. Though there certainly have been and are now abusive laws and abuses of laws protecting individuals from plunder, America, the economic and cultural powerhouse, is the result of enshrining the rights of individuals. As we move forward, our job is to remove and limit the abusers, including government officials themselves, to hold the individual sacred, and to embrace the opportunity for everyone to participate in those rights and the resulting dignity and well-being.