Gov. Cuomo, America has always been great — and my ancestors were slaves

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s grandparents and great grandparents came to America from Italy because they thought America was a great country – a place to build better futures. My ancestors came to America from Africa against their will, in chains and enslaved, treated as less than human.

So it’s ironic that Cuomo could say last week: “We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great.” Yet I say America is the greatest nation on Earth and has been since its founding.

America is not perfect, certainly – but it has many fewer flaws today than it had in the past. And we are on the path to becoming ever greater for a lot of reasons, including the leadership of President Trump.

Cuomo said Wednesday: “We have not reached greatness, we will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged, we will reach greatness when discrimination and stereotyping against women, 51 percent of our population, is gone and every woman’s full potential is realized and unleashed and every woman is making her full contribution.”

Well, as someone who has a lot more experience than Andrew Cuomo being a woman, I say that women obviously still face discrimination. But again, the opportunities open to us today far exceed opportunities for my mother, grandmother and earlier generations.

Two days after his original comments – in face of much criticism, even from Democrats and the media – Cuomo realized he’d stuck his foot in his mouth and backpedaled, saying: “Of course America is great and of course America has always been great.” Right. Too bad the Democratic governor didn’t say this in the first place.

Cuomo then launched into – what else? – an attack on President Trump, who Democrats seem to believe is the root of all evil. As if President Trump created slavery, racism, discrimination against women, and all the other problems that existed in this great country long before he was born.

I realize Gov. Cuomo’s ancestors came here poor, with little education and money, not speaking English, facing discrimination. No disrespect intended to those good and hardworking people, but my ancestors had it a lot harder – not just during the days of slavery, but in the years of blatant racism that followed and into our current times.

So why am I more positive than the governor of New York about our great country and our future?

Because while I believe America has never been perfect, I know it has always been a great nation – striving for the ideals of liberty and equality even when it failed to live up to those ideals. And we’re getting better all the time in matching our actions with the words of the Declaration of Independence and other statements of our highest aspirations.

America is perfectly imperfect. Our nation’s Founding Fathers were flawed. Today, you and I are flawed. Tomorrow, our children and our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be flawed. Mistakes will be made. Miscalculations will occur. Hindsight will always be 20-20.

I recently finished reading the book “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America,” by Henry Wiencek. To say this book was challenging to read would be an understatement. It tapped into my every emotion.

At times as I read this book I cried. At other times I was inspired. Most times I was infuriated. Seldom did I laugh. It was an unvarnished look at slavery and our first president, George Washington – a great but deeply flawed man.

President Washington is probably the most honored man in American history. He was a brilliant general in the Revolutionary War and a great president. He was a patriot revered by our nation. He was a moral man, except … when it came to the sin of slavery.

There’s a fair amount of documentation that shows Washington had misgivings about owning other human beings as if they were livestock. Yet he lacked the moral conviction and courage to fight to abolish slavery when it was directly within his power to do so.

Washington only acknowledged the evil of slavery in death, when in his last will and testament he freed some of his slaves and said the rest should be freed upon his wife’s death.

Many would point to Washington’s role as a slave owner as proof that – as Andrew Cuomo said – America “was never that great.” The critics could also point to many other sorry episodes in our history – the mistreatment of Native Americans, denying women the right to vote until 1920 and many rights long after that, and on and on.

In the creation of America, our Founding Fathers spoke and wrote about a perfection that they themselves never fully achieved. Yet the beauty of the Declaration of Independence and the genius within the Constitution was that they raised the bar on what America should be.

Our founders could have easily set the bar low and patted each other on the back and given each other “attaboys.” But they didn’t.

So much of our culture today is fixated on constantly lowering the bar of expectations so that everyone feels better about themselves. To the contrary, our founders raised the bar for the entire country, themselves and future generations. They dreamed of a better society and we are the beneficiaries of their efforts.

And today each generation gets the wonderful opportunity to move the needle a little bit farther towards more freedom, equality, unity and yes, even more greatness. None of us will be around 200 years from now, but I have no doubt that America will be an even greater country then.

Our time to impact our world will come and go. Then our children will pick up the mantle to have their crack at self-governance. Yet I fear the examples we are modeling before our children will come back to haunt them. Our manipulative techniques of getting what we want, the downright violent and disagreeable way in which we discuss issues, and our utter disrespect for authority will be hurdles. I fear the next generation will be ill-equipped to overcome these.

There are pockets of fellow Americans scattered throughout our nation who are bitter and mean. Then there is the rest of us. Our founders faced this dichotomy as well. Let us do as they did, raising the bar for all of us.

Let us set the bar just high enough that we always stretch to reach it and never quite make it, but strive ever harder. Let us do more to better understand people who don’t see the world as we do, look like us, pray like us, or live like us. Let us practice humility and assume that others have something to teach us. Let us agree to disagree when we must, and disagree without being disagreeable.

Above all, let us believe that all people – in the words of the Declaration of Independence – are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is how we move the needle farther beyond our founders, who were sadly incapable of respecting the worth of all fellow human beings. Fellow human beings like slaves, who struggled to prove their worth as they fought in the American Revolution to achieve a freedom that was not even their own.

And this is how we will make our great country even greater.