I was going to say that it would have to be the Founding generation. But then I changed my mind.
TV news anchor Tom Brokaw put out a book a few years ago called The Greatest Generation, in which he identified Americans who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, then fought the Second World War in the 1940s, as the greatest generation of Americans.
Great as the difficulties were for this generation of Americans, they must pale in comparison to those facing the Founding generation. If you were 20 years old in 1780, you would have trouble remembering a time before the crises of the 1770s, and then the Revolutionary War. As you lived on, you would experience a failed U.S. government (that operating under the Articles of Confederation) that was dismantled in 1787, a referendum to vote on the new and radical Constitution, desperate poverty and inflation, two armed citizen rebellions (Whiskey and Shays), and then when you were 52, the British would invade the U.S. and burn down the White House.
That’s a lot to face, especially with no history, really no inkling of experience with a democratic government. You would be building democratic government with your own hands and brain. There were no guideposts to reassure you, and several times the whole experiment of your new nation seemed on the brink of failure.
People growing up in the 1930s had a long history of being American, long experience of our form of government, and generally clear and well-established standards of American/democratic behavior to guide them. If they were tempted to abandon these, that might be understandable, but the fact that they did not simply speaks to their historical advantages over the Founding Americans.
Well, that’s the case for calling the Founders the greatest generation. But after all, I did change my mind about the whole idea of choosing one group to be the greatest Americans.
The real Greatest Generation of Americans is each and every one that lives up to the principles this nation was founded on, the principles of promoting and protecting natural rights and equality of opportunity for all Americans. Every generation that does this is truly the greatest, simply because it’s very hard to do. Our founding principles demand that we rise above human nature in many ways, and offer justice and freedom to all. Any generation that does this deserves our praise.
That opens up the opportunity to those of us living in America right now to be the next greatest generation. Rather than thinking we missed the boat and cannot partake of the glory of any past generation of our ancestors, we must see that they simply carried the baton for a while, and have now passed it to us. It can’t go out on our watch, lest we fail the next greatest generation coming after us.