I recently had the opportunity to talk with a foreigner about American history. He asked how long America had been independent.
That’s a complicated question. There are a lot of years that could be used to answer the question. 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed? Perhaps 1783, when Great Britain admitted defeat? 1787, when the Constitution was written? Or perhaps 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as president?
In any case, I said, America is a very young country. It’s only been independent for around three hundred years.
I decided to actually double-check that figure. 2012 minus 1776, which seems to be the year most people use for American independence.
It turns out that America has been an independent nation for only 236 years! That is not a lot of time. Think about it this way: one really really old person theoretically could have lived for more than half of the history of this nation. That’s pretty amazing.
There’s an interesting bit of historical context that goes along with this. Most great powers throughout history tend to last for a remarkably uniform amount of time: around 200 years. There are empires, of course, which fall apart the moment their founder dies. Other powers last for milllenia. But even with these powers one can see the two-century cycle: two centuries of dominance and hegemony, followed by a time of decay and chaos, followed by another two centuries of strength, followed by another time of decline, and so on.
The United States has been a great power roughly since 1898, when it won the Spanish-American War. That’s 114 years. Following the simple logic above, America has roughly 86 years of greatness left before it falls into chaos. (Of course, good leadership and strong institutions can shorten or lengthen that period of time.)