Does America sit under a rising, or setting sun?

Once, a group of rowdy, boisterous Americans successfully rebelled against the world's greatest superpower - all over some not-very-onerous taxes.  Today, docile and decadent Americans are preparing to roll over and acquiesce to wholesale government take-over of their mortal bodies, under the rubric of "health care reform." 

Once, Americans built the world's tallest skyscraper - the Empire State Building - in little more than a year in the midst of the Great Depression.  Today, a gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline remains almost nine years after the Twin Towers fell, and the world's new tallest building opens - in Dubai.

Once, the United States simultaneously destroyed both Hitler's Third Reich and Tojo's Imperial Japan, whose combined armies had overrun much of the world and seemed all but invincible only a few years previous.  Today, the United States talks openly of withdrawing our forces from the Afghan theater in 2011 (after a brief and token surge), even though Osama bin Laden remains at large and the Taliban remains unbroken.

Once, eight enemy combatants from Germany secretly came ashore on Long Island, New York, to conduct a campaign of sabotage and terror on behalf of their Nazi masters; all were tried by military commission and sentenced to death (six were executed).  Today, an enemy combatant attempts to bring down an airplane over American airspace and kill hundreds of civilians on behalf of his Islamist masters; he will be tried in civilian court, receive a lawyer, and be privy to all the Constitutional protections that are the birthright of every American - and now, it appears, at least some foreign terrorists.

See a pattern here?  This by-no-means exhaustive list but briefly sketches the sad, astonishing slide of the America people and their once mighty republic.  The trend is relentless and unmistakable - independence and resolve give way to retreat and apathy, both at home and abroad.

Why?  What is this contagion that infects us?  Is it the nature of a free people that they must eventually lose their love of liberty, and even the ability to sustain it?  Does the wealth produced by our freedom make us corpulent and corrupt, and therefore unworthy of our ancestor's great gift?  

Our plight is not a new one, but sadly the lesson of history is not encouraging:  Millennia ago, Cato the Censor warned his fellow Romans that their spirit was degrading, and urged them to return to the rugged values and habits of the men and women who had instituted the Republic.  He was lambasted as a crank and a Cassandra - he was also right:  Rome was soon ripe for the dictatorship of the Caesars and the barbarian invasions which would overwhelm the once glorious civilization.

Do not misunderstand  - our destiny is not written in stone.  Rome's fate need not be ours.  But it can be, and it is easy to prophesize where our current path will lead:  As the republican spirit bleeds from our body politic, so, too, the colors of our banner wash away, leaving only a fluttering white flag...

 ...of surrender.

Matt Patterson is a National Review Institute Washington Fellow and the author of "Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story." His email is