In 1795, the Duc De La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt stood at the Battery, the plaza marking Manhattan's southern tip, awed at the scene before him.
"In this promenade," he wrote, "the eye embraces at once all the outlets of this great port, and sees all its shipping come in and go out."
In a glance, he was able to survey the shores of New Jersey. The bluffs of Brooklyn. The green hillsides of Staten Island. In between them all, innumerable ships traversed the ocean, rivers, harbors and piers.
The scene, he would later say, made the Battery "incomparably the most delightful public walk anywhere to be found."
Across the Atlantic, Europe was in flames. Yet America was just beginning to realize its endless potential. As Europe's monarchies struggled to survive, and countless diplomats and aristocrats lost their heads (literally and figuratively), the United States was thriving.
Its greatest hero and first president had just completed two four-year terms and had voluntarily returned to private life, even as the country begged him to remain. John Adams had peacefully assumed office. The U.S. was a peaceful republic whose leaders spoke of honor and service. A burgeoning nation modeling itself after classical Rome.
Yet, it was not politics that captured the Frenchman's imagination. It was economics.
Rochefoucauld-Liancourt noted the Americans' "ardor for enterprise." Their bustling stores and workshops. Their ringing hammers and the shouts of workman busily erecting new buildings. He marveled at the way by which every citizen seemed to cherish "the project of making an ample and rapid fortune... few of them are contented with what they have."
Rochefoucauld-Liancourt noticed early on what soon became a distinctively American trait: the ambitious and enterprising ways by which all Americans, from her cities to her countrysides, conducted themselves.
In the end, it was that image that would define Rochefoucauld-Liancourt's American vision.
The United States, he wrote, "is destined by nature for a state of strength and greatness, which nothing can prevent her from attaining."
He predicted that the U.S. would attain "a degree of prosperity, which must in the future render this part of the world the rival, perhaps the fortunate (i.e. more successful) rival, of Europe."
The Frenchman's prescience was commendable. He realized that this fledgling nation had vast faith in itself, and that industry was its religion.
The United States went on to become the world's economic engine during the 19th and 20th centuries. A nation driven by its independence. Its sense of toughness and accountability. Its maxim that anyone could achieve anything if they were willing to set goals, wake up and work hard.
Further, the U.S. was founded on an absolutist's approach to the attainment and preservation of property. We respected those who were able to achieve it. We held as inviolate the ability to maintain it.
No less than Alexis de Tocqueville observed early on that, "In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States, and nowhere else does the majority display less inclination toward doctrines which in any way threaten the way property is owned."
This nation was founded on -- thrived because of and attained respect due to -- a firm belief in the individual's right to achieve, attain and maintain. In so doing, Americans were more apt to practice the fundamental tenets of community and generosity than any of their European peers. Why? Perhaps because when one feels blessed, he is more apt to share his blessings.
Today, however, the script has changed. We still celebrate individualism, accountability and achievement. But we are equally adept at slandering those who practice these virtues.
Some argue that this change stems from today's wealth disparity.
True, there is an unhealthy chasm between America's haves and have-nots. Yet, that chasm has existed since the nation's founding. Vanderbilt. Carnegie. Rockefeller. Morgan. These men and their peers had everything. And at that time, there was no middle class to speak of.
Today, the United States boasts the world's largest middle class. Our middle and lower-middle class enjoy a higher standard of living than their socio-economic peers the world over.
Does that justify the acceptance of the idea that anyone should exist below the poverty line? No. But, we have progressed into a dangerous area in which the most vocal among us (usually politicians, celebrities and the media punditocracy) have taken up the drumbeat that anyone who has achieved anything of note owes the rest of the nation a living.
And while the U.S. provides some of the world's most generous welfare and entitlement programs to those who truly need them -- the poor, indigent and handicapped -- we've had to pay off the middle class in order to gain continuing support for these programs. Had to extend the reach of these handouts to provide for a much larger swath of the electorate than for whom they were intended. Because, only by bribing parts of the middle class with welfare-lite could politicians preserve political support for such programs.
This wider entitlement distribution portends dark consequences. As an entitlement once awarded is next to impossible to rescind.
Consider FDR's creation of social security amid the depression of the 1930s. This holy grail of entitlement programs was created in order to motivate fearful seniors to vacate jobs, and so increase employment among the nation's younger workforce. While effective at easing older workers out and bringing younger workers in, the program became so entrenched that we continue to hand out social security checks today. Even as the Congressional Budget Office says that the nation can ill-afford to do so, especially as the nation's largest-ever generation stands on retirement's doorstep.
What would those who created this nation think of today's redistribution systems? Of Washington's insistence that only larger government, collecting more revenue, distributed to a wider swath of the population, is capable of handling the nation's moral obligations?
How would Franklin, Jefferson, Vanderbilt and Edison feel about comments like, "You didn't build that"? Or of the denigration a presidential candidate receives for sloppily yet honestly referring to the nation's 47 percent who pay little to no taxes and yet are the beneficiaries of the majority of the government's largess?
This, even as the talk of welfare reform acknowledges the idea that programs meant to elevate the nation's poor have instead trapped them in a seemingly permanent state of poverty and dependency.
Yes, the nation needs to act upon the outrageous sums being earned by fat-cat bankers who made millions even as they received bailouts.
Conversely, the nation needs to do something about the pole-cat citizenry who've figured out a means to game the system -- and thus the taxpayer -- in order to maintain a lifestyle with no responsibility.
Wage disparity and wealth inequality have long existed. So long as there was property to be traded, purchased and sold, some have earned more than others. Yet, do we help the situation when large facets of the population are being drained of their ambition, desensitized to the idea of personal achievement, under the banner of moral obligation?
The nation's poor, sick and indigent are unfairly treated when much of the funds raised by a progressive tax-and-transfer system go to those who don't need it.
What happens when a democratic republic's majority votes itself ever-increasing benefits at the cost of an exhausted and depleted minority?
The nation's founders would be uncomfortable with the government's centralization of moral obligation. With conferring all social responsibility to Federal administrators who have lost billions of dollars attempting to simply deliver the mail.
Nor are these failures all due to incompetence. Many of these issues are simply too complex to be handled by Federal bureaucracies lacking the accountability that accompanies a profit motive. Why is it that the U.S. Postal Service lost $16 billion last year, yet U.P.S. and FedEx earned billions?
Would the Duc De La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt even recognize today's United States? Would he stand upon her shores and, again, praise her energy and resourcefulness?
Or, might be respond as one might at a 30-year high school reunion when, upon seeing the one-time class valedictorian and football captain, one realizes that time has not been kind. That a once studious, effervescent young man has seen his better days.
Perhaps the nation's next iteration will be different, yet more evolved and equally spectacular.
Still, there can be no doubt to even the casual observer that an industrious, fledgling democratic republic has, in some respects, lost its religion.
Hopefully, it still maintains its faith.