America: Love it or, Well, Love It | Opinion

"Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

It's not much when you think about it. It's everything. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were offering up their all in the fight for freedom from British tyranny. It was a noble, even mythic struggle. George Washington's rag-tag army, often moments away from annihilation, traversed its way up and down the colonies for nearly a decade before emerging victorious in the final battle at Yorktown.

Some of the founders did lose their estates and their fortunes. At least one did lose his life. But none of them, then, lost their reputations. They became heroes, not just because of their willingness to sacrifice kit and kin and risk the ruin of their reputations but because they took an idea—that the rights of man entitle people to a self-governing existence instead of subservience to a monarch chosen by God—and turned it into a functioning republic.

It was not perfect. There were false starts—such as the effort to exist under the Articles of Confederation—and acts of commission that allowed, for example, the continued existence of slavery. Yes, America came into being part slave, part free but does that fact alone really require us now to condemn the whole enterprise? There are those, and they are increasing in number, who say it should—or that it should at least dull the sense of reverence we have for the founders, the founding, and the Constitution they produced.

They're wrong. These were men, not miracle workers. They could only do so much. The divide over slavery between the northern colonies and those in the south was a chasm too great to cross without ripping what might be a new nation almost certainly irreparably into two parts. So much then for independence. And, since the whole conversation depends on consideration of the theoretical, would America have become the great nation she now is had it been delayed by a month, a week, even a day longer than it took to win it?

The history of man is evolutionary. As someone once observed, we always overestimate the impact of change in the short term while underestimating it in the long run. Freedom in the North, as it existed from the earliest days of the republic, led to freedom in the South. Slavery was abolished, but not by the stroke of a pen. Freedom for all men came at tremendous cost, involving once again lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. The men and women of mid-19th century America paid for the founders' inability to end slavery in blood and treasure and reputation.

And again, freedom advanced slowly. The latter part of that same century saw not just continued discrimination and worse for blacks but for the Chinese, for the Irish, for Jews and for other immigration groups who'd begun to flock to America seeking work and survival. They may not have been classified as property as black slaves once were, but they certainly were treated like it. And the mistreatment continued as Eastern Europeans and Italians came and as blacks began to move North searching for work, ending up in sweatshops and as virtual slaves to "the company store" and other enterprises to which they became indebted.

None of them had it easy. The first settlers in North America who hewed colonies out of hard soil and forests didn't either. Nor did the people who fought for and won our independence. The history of America is a history of struggle, something the history books don't do a very good job of explaining anymore.

To put it simply, being an American is hard. It requires work. One must learn what it means to be a citizen of this great place and that merit, intellect, resourcefulness, mobility and other intangibles matter. The race here does not always go to the swift; sometimes it goes to the most determined.

People seem to have forgotten that. They've chosen to focus on their grievances rather than consider their opportunities. And to hear so many people tell it, including the various Democrats who want to be the next president of the United States, whatever adverse conditions come from a lack of ambition they are always the fault of someone else.

America remains, as Ronald Reagan like to say so often, "a shining city on a hill." Our greatness is found not just in our people but in the idea upon which this country was founded: that men and women are responsible, ultimately, for their own affairs. The lack of perfection in any one area or even many areas is no reason to discard our historic experiment in self-government for a system in which we become clients of the state rather than citizens. But if we're not careful, that's exactly where we're headed.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@gmail.com . Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​

America: Love it or, Well, Love It | Opinion | Opinion