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Why America is in Decline

american_dreamPeople often compare America’s decline with the fall of Rome or the Ottoman Empire.

Another apt parallel to our time can be found in the British experience with the American Revolutionary War.

The British Army and Navy was much bigger, more well-trained, and more highly funded than the Continental Army, and most observers — on both sides of the conflict — were convinced that the American uprising would be short lived.

They turned out to be wrong, mainly because of a little-known revolution that changed everything. Historian Joseph J. Ellis described it eloquently:

“[T]he strategic center of the [American] rebellion was not a place — not New York, not Philadelphia, not the Hudson corridor — but the Continental Army itself.”

The British thus got their tactics all wrong. They were accustomed to fighting armies in a place, taking over the homes and controlling the travels and commerce of a locale, and using this strength to force submission.

They did all these things in the American colonies, but it didn’t work because the Continental Army simply moved.

This was a new reality, and the British didn’t figure it out and adjust until it was too late.

This is what happens when true human revolutions occur. The changes in the people happen quickly, but institutions can take years or decades to catch up and adapt.

The British generals thought the goal was to take over New York, or Boston, but by misunderstanding the goal they failed to win. They achieved their goals, but never obtained victory.

A similar thing happened, albeit on a different scale, in the Vietnam conflict nearly two centuries later. A bigger force was unable to use superior technology and firepower to overcome guerrilla warfare.

The French and later the American forces thought the goal was to win in battle, but their enemy simply wanted to outlast them. The Soviet Union learned the same lesson in Afghanistan.

In our day, we face an even bigger problem. We seem to be an America headed nowhere. Many people believe in American exceptionalism, and others disagree with this view, but few are clear on exactly what is exceptional — or not — about the United States.

This challenge is rooted in a significant problem: The concept of “America” has lost its original meaning.

Many Americans want the U.S. to be great, to be the world’s superpower, to be the most free, wealthiest and strongest nation on earth. They want it to be an example to the world, to stop modern Hitlers and check modern Stalins and Maos. Or they want it to be like the nations of Europe and work as a team to improve the world.

In all of these, the heart is missing. The passion is gone. People still speak with fervor for their partisan views or against those they dislike, but America doesn’t anymore speak with one, united, unmistakable voice for one great thing.

The problem is that the ground has shifted. Like the British in 1780 or the French and Americans in 1960s Vietnam, we keep hitting our goals only to realize that aren’t winning.

“Why?” we ask, as we struggle to make sense of it all.

We have come to consider America great because America is great, but this isn’t enough. We look at power, wealth and strength, and we wonder why these are in decline. We want them back.

We want good, secure jobs for our kids in a time where such jobs are very rare.

We want the promise of “staying in school, getting a good job, and then making enough to support a family,” to still be real — even though the evidence shows it is clearly now a myth.

We want our kids to grow up and obtain a better standard of living than we have, even though nearly all Americans now doubt this will occur.

We want America to be America again, and we blame Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, NBC or Fox News, Congress or the CIA, illegal aliens who come looking for a better life, or anyone else who might fit the bill.

We want America to be America, but we have forgotten what this requires.

Indeed, we have forgotten that America wasn’t great because of our wealth, power or strength. America was great because it embraced freedom. Of course, it was the kind of freedom that put God at the center, that believed in duties as well as rights, that printed everywhere the motto “In God We Trust.”

It certainly wasn’t the libertine kind of freedom that said anything goes as long as you are strong enough to force your will on others. It was the opposite of this.

Nor was it the kind of freedom that was limited to voting in elections, waving a flag on the 4th of July, and otherwise leaving our nation’s leadership to the politicians and experts. That kind of freedom never lasts.

American freedom was built on a nation of people who read the great classics of freedom, who studied bills, laws, court cases, proposed treaties and budgets.

If we aren’t such people now, it is no surprise that our freedoms are being lost.

America became great because it stood for freedom. America is only now great to the extent that it still, too rarely, stands for real freedom.

It was freedom that brought American wealth, strength and progress — not vice versa. It was freedom that made America a light to the world, not the other way around.

And because we now give significantly less passion or effort or thought to freedom, we are losing it.

We want American greatness back, but American greatness was built on, in a word, freedom.

It bears repeating: Freedom made America great. Today we are losing our greatness, and we will continue to do so unless — and until — freedom is once again put at the center of our society.

A revolution came after World War II, when most people stopped reading and approaching their citizenship in the ways described above.

What is needed today is another revolution, a revolution in reading and entrepreneurship. This one change — regular citizens reading great classics, studying government documents, and engaging more entrepreneurship — will bring back freedom.

These are what free people in history have always done. When they, or their posterity, stopped doing these things, they lost their liberty.

This is what Orrin Woodward and I wrote about in our book, LeaderShift. America needs a bunch of regular people to start leading. To start making these changes. To read, study government documents, and innovate in business.

We can do this, and unless we do freedom will continue to decline.

The future of freedom, and America, is up to us.


odemille Oliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.

Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.


  1. You say, “American freedom was built on a nation of people who read the great classics of freedom, who studied bills, laws, court cases, proposed treaties and budgets.”
    I disagree!
    Define freedom! You have never (to my limited knowledge) defined freedom in such a way as to be very specific. What is freedom? and how do we attain it? Reading the classics, studying bills, etc. does not necessarily lead to one specific end.

  2. Kris, I do not say that doing those things will automatically lead to freedom, but that to neglect them will lead to its loss. There are no nations in history where the masses of people stayed free when they neglected to read and understand bills, laws, cases and policies. Or, more to the point: in societies where the masses of people read these things consistently, they maintained their freedom at a much higher level. See – the golden age of Israel, golden age of Athens, Switzerland during the Vales period, the height of Anglo-Saxon culture, the Frank era of freedom in France, the periods of British history where freedom was widespread and the American Founding era.

    For example, in 1794 Samuel Williams, an educator in Vermont, wrote:

    “All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: they are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets; to form some general acquaintance with the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, etc.

    “Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state: and nothing would be more dishonorable to the parents, or to the children, than to be without it.”

    This was the culture of the American founding, and it is always the culture of freedom. Now, this one thing doesn’t guarantee freedom. People have to get involved and do something with this kind of knowledge. But historically, a people that consistently reads these kinds of things always does more.

    As for the term “freedom,” I give a full definition in chapters 11 and 12 of my book 1913.

    Thanks for your energetic response. It’s readers like you that can help revive a culture of freedom and personal engagement for our future.

  3. Thank you, Oliver, for your thoughtful and encouraging response. Sounds like I have a lot more to read!
    I read 1913 a while back and summarized your definition of freedom as 1. the right to choose, (choose what? anything?) 2. having the ability to improve yourself, (How? by what means?) and 3. a resource that makes success possible. (How do you define success?) Also as a primary good and universal goal.
    This is still too vague for me! It raises too many questions and leaves too much room for possibly violating another person’s property.
    What about this? “Freedom is a societal structure wherein every individual has 100% control of his own property.” A.J. Galambos
    You either control your property, or you do not and therefore do not have freedom. This is clear to me.
    I think part of the problem today is not that we do not know the laws but that we do not understand that there is a higher law than the arbitrary political laws that we have today.

  4. Kris, there are two historical definitions of freedom, or “liberty,” as is often used.

    The traditional Hebrew definition, which has informed the Anglo-Saxon and Judeo-Christian history is that freedom is the right to choose whatever you want, and improve yourself and your situation, as long as you don’t infringe on the inalienable rights of another person. Property is just one of those inalienable rights, and is too narrow a measure.

    Although the Libertarian stance has defined life, reputation and relationships as part of property, most other traditions consider these separate. So if property means anything to which you have an inalienable right, or could consider an inalienable right, then we could say that 100% control of property is the definition of freedom.

    However, this definition has proven limited in history; even a slave has inalienable rights to his thoughts – which, again, could be considered property, but most people don’t see it that way. As a result, I like the inalienable rights construction as opposed to the property construction.

    The “rights” approach also includes inalienable duties, which is not necessarily true of the “property” approach. There is a whole string of Machiavellian and Randian thought which says that a person has a right and a duty to protect his own property, but no duty whatsoever to protect the property of another.

    This has taken the “property-as-freedom” definition and turned it into a self-centered “freedom” that gives an individual property rights without any responsibility to God or others. While theoretically, one can make a case for this, historically it never stands.

    Freedom lasts when people stand up for their inalienable rights and consider it their duty and responsibility to stand up for the inalienable rights of others as well. This is the Aristotelian, Lockian and Jeffersonian “freedom,” which was originally found in the Bible.

    The second definition of freedom is “license,” which is the freedom to do whatever one wants, as long as they are strong enough to get away with it. As you know, this kind of freedom always leads to societies without freedom.

    Also, I don’t think freedom is a societal construct. Societies can apply freedom as a construct, but even in the absence of society, individuals can and should believe in inalienable rights and exercise their inalienable duties. In fact, it is when people exercise their inalienable duties that societal constructs of freedom are established and maintained.

    So, I’m back to my original definition: Freedom is the right to pursue what a person wants (as long as he doesn’t violate the inalienable rights of another). This spreads to the societal level when people fulfill their inalienable duties (the main one of which is precisely, “to not violate the inalienable rights of others”).

  5. Thanks for your response! If you don’t mind continuing this conversation, I would really like an explanation of your following statement.
    “However, this definition has proven limited in history; even a slave has inalienable rights to his thoughts – which, again, could be considered property, but most people don’t see it that way.” Specifically, which “could be considered property,” the slave or thoughts or both?
    Can you give some examples of when my definition has “proven limited” assuming a broad definition of property? I guess by property, I was thinking my life, my liberty, my creations whether thoughts or products or models, etc. and my defense of what is mine. I think there is great incentive in this to care for others’ property as well. If I want my property to be respected and protected, I would tend to respect others too.
    Thanks again!

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