by Philip Wegmann, Age 18
Submitting Teacher: Elizabeth Wegmann

The journey for many European immigrants across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States must be described as nothing short of a nightmare. Conditions on the often decrepit passenger steamers, which ferried millions of immigrants across the Atlantic, were cramped, overcrowded, and miserable. Yet when the ships chugged into New York's Harbor, all miseries were quickly forgotten. At those moments, the railings of the sea-going vessels were immediately crowded. All waited with bated breath, staring at the emerging New York coastline. Soon after entering the harbor, passengers were afforded their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. This colossal structure of copper and steel offered to them a physical manifestation of American greatness. This was what they had sacrificed everything for. This was freedom.

However, now, more than five decades after the closing of Ellis Island, some have questioned whether the same ideals and opportunities of America still hold true. According to a recent ABC and Yahoo News joint poll, scarcely half of Americans still believe the American Dream is possible, while another forty-six percent believe it "once held true but no longer does." This is the condition of Twenty-First Century United States, leaving many to ponder: "What's so great about America?"

The answer to this questions runs deep to the heart of our Republic. America's greatness flows from the freedoms we enjoy as individuals. When one surveys American history, two characteristics immediately stand out: our diversity and our prosperity.

Although shaken by the recent recession, this nation's economy remains the envy of the entire world. Often emulated, though never duplicated, our economy is vibrant, making America the most prosperous nation on earth. What then is the secret to America's prosperity? Freedom.

Unlike the markets of other nations, too often commanded by a central authority, Americans enjoy a capitalist system, grounded upon the tenets of economic liberty and the entrepreneurial spirit. In a recent interview with John Stossel, Dinesh D'Souza, author of What's Great About America, rightly explained that America's economic greatness is due to an economic system: "based on entrepreneurship." In America, ambitious entrepreneurs are free to pursue new business opportunities, while seeking the latest innovations in order to bring the best products and services to market. As entrepreneurs, businessmen, and consumers each freely follow their unique interest, society as a whole profits from less expensive, better quality goods. Competing entrepreneurs who harness innovation in order to minimize costs and maximize profit, drive our Capitalist system. America has benefitted greatly from the innovations of visionaries like Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, more recently, Bill Gates and countless others. Each of these entrepreneurs developed products which have significantly bolstered the quality of life of people the world over. These innovations could only be possible in a system based on economic freedom. As a result of our liberty, America has become the most prosperous nation on earth.

Yet, America's greatness is not ascribed simply with dollars and cents. Rather, it runs deeper, to the very core of who we are as the most diverse mixture of peoples in the world. Since our earliest days, we have always counted amongst ourselves numerous peoples. This great heritage of diversity has truly made America a great melting pot. Our ability to readily accept different groups of people from around the world must be attributed once again to the foundation of our American Republic, to individual liberty.

Some question this heritage of freedom and diversity, pointing to the chapters of American history blighted by the horrors of slavery and the subsequent cruelty of the Jim Crow South. While these injustices undoubtedly show America at our very worst, efforts by great Americans to overcome such inequality show us at our very best.

We are so dedicated to this ideal of individual freedom that our nation was nearly broken apart by the brutal Civil War. This the most bloody war in American history, rather than underscoring America's racism and bigotry, speaks volumes of our dedication to individual freedom.

America's resolve to ensure equality for all was again tested during the American Civil Rights movement. During this critical juncture in the American experience, the young and the old, men and women, black and white, marched together and demanded that the United States respect and maintain the promise of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

If one ever doubts America's dedication to individual freedom and racial tolerance, they need only look at the face of modern America. Today more than ever, America has thrown off the lingering clutches of racism and inequality, and rededicated itself to ensuring freedom to all. Karyn Folan, author of Don't Bring Home A White Boy, summarized this transformation, writing: "In just two generations to have gone from segregation to a black American President, that is impressive!"

While America has made great strides forward in all areas, the road before our nation promises to be difficult. Today, the United States remains slumped in the greatest recession since the Great Depression; rather than viewing modern captains of industry and free markets as assets, our government views them with contempt. During these times we may easily lose sight of America's greatness and the American Dream. Yet if we, as a nation, rededicate ourselves to individual freedom, that ideal which brought so many millions of immigrants to our nation before, America's greatest days are undoubtedly ahead.