Depending on who you ask, 2016 was either one of the worst years ever or one of the best years that they can remember. This view is largely shaped by the passing of numerous iconic and beloved celebrities, miraculous victories in sports and/or a bitter and polarizing presidential election that ended with an incredibly divisive result. Some years leave us feeling up and down about it, non-committal one way or the other. 2016 was not one of those years. 2016 ended with nearly everyone having a pretty straightforward and unrelenting opinion on the year that was ending.
As for the presidential election in question, of course a big topic of conversation was the goal of making America great again. It was an easy phrase to say, even yell out if you felt so inclined. But as a question, it was one that proved difficult to answer; something The Daily Show found out when asking it of Trump supporters in the summer of 2016. Okay, so we’re going to make America great again. Cool. But when exactly was America great? That’s not so cool because it’s kind of a tricky one to pin down.
On that note, let’s try and determine which one of America’s years were the best. We have plenty of years to choose from, especially if we dig deep and go way back. We’re not looking for a time to go back to, as the notion of making America great again would imply. Instead, were simply going to set out and attempt to figure out what year was America’s best year.
For further clarification I present the following graphic.
So we have our top seeds: 1492, 1776, 1789 and 1865. Congratulations to all of you. In all, we have 32 years in the running for the title of America’s Best Year. The 32 were chosen after extensive and thorough research of America’s history…and by extensive and thorough, I mean I Google’d the bejesus out of American history and came up with these 32 years. I even made a spreadsheet. Why? Because I care.
As with the Greatest HBO Character of All Time tournament, there will be somewhat of a scoring rubric in place, a way to effectively pick winners. We’ll look at the pro’s and con’s of each year, governing this tournament with a system of checks and balances that would make the Founding Fathers proud. Let’s say a year included some especially wonderful things involving civil rights or granting a portion of the population the right to vote – that’s awesome. But if that year also included a black eye like racism or a massive dust storm, that’s a knock against it and not so awesome.
And thus we have a quality scoring rubric.
The Revolutionary Era
1492 (1) vs. 1892 (8)
Little known geographic wanderer and historical yeah, but Christopher Columbus was out on the high seas, doing some exploring and found himself discovering land that would become America. Or part of America. Whatever. Of course he wasn’t the first European to hit our wonderful shores. That was Leif Erickson in the 11th century, but come on, that was like, so long ago. Plus, Columbus’ landing started a long-lasting love affair between America and Europe. As for 1892, basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts by a gym teacher looking to find ways to keep his students from killing each other during the frigid New England winter months. Basketball is dope, but America is more dope. Plus, there was an oil fire in a town called Oil City, Pennsylvania that killed 130 people. I don’t know – that little factoid just kind of stuck out to me.
1920 (2) vs. 1869 (7)
Okay, 1920 is one of the years that is a damn near mountain range of positives and negatives so let’s lay out one of each.
A positive: women were allowed the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment.
The negative? The 18th amendment, which laid the groundwork for Prohibition, and officially kicked into gear in January of 1920. Mobsters dude. It led to mobsters. I’ve seen Boardwalk Empire. I’m not going to say those things cancel each other out, but I will say that when put up against a year where the main claim to fame is the first college football game, 1869 doesn’t stand a chance.
1814 (3) vs. 1773 (6)
Under the exploding skies of the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key scribbled down the words to the Star Spangled Banner, America’s very own Stairway to Heaven. You get a lot of points for writing a classic. 1773 on the other hand, not too shabby, and I’m questioning seeding it at 6. The Boston Tea Party happened in 1773, a response to the Tea Act of 1773, some shady business by the Brits meant to prop up the East India Trading Company. The Tea Party lit the fuse for the American Revolution. Damn. A six seed, Ryan? Questionable decisions like that would have had me committed to the Persons for Insane or Disordered Minds, the first insane asylum in America, which opened in 1773 in Williamsburg, Virginia. Songs are cool and all, but parties that lead to revolutions that lead to countries are cooler in my opinion. Upset!
1774 (4) vs. 2008 (5)
It’s not a bold statement to make when you say that America has a sketchy history when it comes to race. So an African American being elected President is a big effin’ deal. Put that up against the fact that the high points in our history in 1774 was that three states (Rhode Island, Georgia and Connecticut) banned the importing of slaves and it makes it look even more significant. Don’t sleep on 2008, kids.
Actually, I don’t know 2008. Now you have to face 1492.
Let’s see how this shakes out.
1492 (1) vs. 2008 (5)
You know Columbus, I’ll give you this – finding America is an achievement. But…and this is kind of a biggie…dude got here by accident. He was actually shooting for Japan, which, and I don’t even need to consult a map here, is no where near the Bahamas, which is where Columbus landed. What the hell, Chris? You weren’t even headed in the right direction. Oh wait, you didn’t know America was there. Or you did? Either way, Columbus stumbled onto America, thought it was sweet, then proceeded to either kill or enslave the native people he came across. So in closing, Christopher Columbus was an asshole. 1492 is out.
1920 (2) vs. 1773 (6)
The Tea Party lead to the Revolution and the founding of America; the establishing of a new democracy, in which the government was the voice of the people. That sounds wonderful and a fantastic sequence of events. Noticeably absent though is the part where it’s mentioned that the people given a voice at the time were just dudes. Fun fact about America is that women live here too. Yeah, it’s true. Now it’s not the fault of those brave revolutionaries involved in the Tea Party that their actions led to a country that ignored half of the population (even more if you count minorities) but women being given the right to vote is a big effin’ deal. 1920 has some other cards up it’s sleeve too- cards like this one: the population of the United States surpassed 100 million people in 1920. Hey yo!
1920 (2) vs. 2008 (5)
And in the Revolutionary Era portion of the bracket, the white dudes were left to sit and wait. The winner of this region will either be a year where women earned the right to vote or a year when an African American became President. Man, talk about a tough one. Unfortunately for 2008, which also featured such things as the near collapse of the U.S. Auto Industry, the deaths of Heath Ledger, George Carlin and Paul Newman and the emergence of Sarah Palin, the negatives start to add up. And while yes, the Red Sox did trade Babe Ruth in 1920, something that as a Red Sox fan, I take as a shot across the bow, it kind of pales in comparison to our currency and financial system almost going down the shitter. 2008 is not going to advance, but I will say this about 2008 – in 1920 it was deemed illegal to mail your kids. So while 1920 advances, 2008 at least doesn’t have that mark on their record.
The Roaring 20’s
1776 (1) vs. 1752 (8)
1776, just sitting there, looking like a boss. 1776 isn’t scared of 1752 anymore than Kansas would be scared of someone like Bucknell. 1752’s best shot? Ben Franklin walked out in a lightning storm, flew a kite with a key attached, nearly got electrocuted and determined that lightning was electricity. Now of course that’s an accomplishment and I don’t mean to diminish it, but this is 1776 we are talking about here. The world’s first submarine attack happened in 1776 as the Turtle, a U.S. submersible ship, attempted to attach a bomb to the hull of the HMS Eagle, a British ship, in New York harbor. Oh and the Declaration of Independence was approved by the publisher. Not too shabby 1776.
1947 (2) vs. 2000 (7)
One thing ended in one of these years while another thing didn’t end in the other. Can you guess? No? You probably didn’t even try. Segregation ended in baseball in 1947 as Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, while the world didn’t end in 2000, which was rumored to happen by more than one or two people you were friends with at the time. We are honoring accomplishments here and doing something as opposed to not doing something, even if that something is “not ending,” is more impressive.
1844 (3) vs. 1781 (6)
If you created a way to communicate with someone, what would your first communication be? Well, the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, cut straight to the chase when christening his new communication device.
Clear cut and informative.
When Samuel Morse sat down to compose his first telegraph, which he did in 1844, he decided to strike a noticeably different tone than Dorsey. Morse’s first transmission sent via telegraph was “What God hath wrought.” I think he meant “what God has made.” Either way, without the telegraph, there definitely isn’t Twitter and that might be the worst possible case made for the importance of the telegraph…or the best, depending on how you feel about history.
How you feel about history probably also dictates how you feel about this match-up because 1781 is a sneaky big year historically. The American Revolution essentially ended in 1781, with the British formally surrendering to General George Washington at Yorktown. We did it! We won.
Ah, but man, probably would have been great to tell someone not in your immediate proximity right away that the war was over. If only Morse had come along sooner. 1844 edges out 1781.
1847 (4) vs. 1964 (5)
Speaking of inventors, Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the long-lasting light bulb was born in mid-February and the world would be markedly better thanks to the work he’d go on to do. Did you know that Edison owned over 1,000 patents? I don’t have any patents. Like, zero. Talk about disappointing news. But hold up, looks like I’m not the only one getting disappointing news because this just in, 1847 isn’t going to beat 1964. 1964 is a real wrecking ball of a year. It’s moving on and will face a real test in 1776, so I want to save some ammunition. But I’ll give you this little nugget: Dr. Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, making him the youngest person ever to receive the award. Also in 1964? The Beatles yo!
1776 (1) vs. 1964 (5)
I mean, 1776 was the year America became America. I don’t want to get to ahead of myself, but wouldn’t that make 1776 a tough year to beat? Is this just a race for second place? Should I just stop now? Have you stopped now? Can anyone even hear me? Sorry. Back on track.
Let’s be honest, 1776 wins this region. 1964 was definitely a worthy competitor. America got it’s first taste of the Beatles that year, when they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and there was also an addition made to the Civil Rights Bill that banned discrimination in jobs, voting booths and accommodations. You can’t sleep on 1964. Kind of a bummer that the U.S. government started putting together a plan to bomb North Vietnam in 1964 and there was also the Panama Canal Incident, where 4 U.S. servicemen died at the hands of a Panamanian mob. So far 1776 is rolling with impunity and those blemishes on 1964’s record are damaging enough.
1947? Dude, they started the Doomsday Clock. 1844? Eh, still can’t step to 1776.
The Postwar Boom Era
1865 (1) vs. 1897 (8)
Big year for good old Boston in 1897. Not only was the first Boston Marathon run, but America’s first subway opened in Boston. Coincidentally, a pharmacist named Felix Hoffman working for Bayer, created aspirin, something you definitely need if you were either to run a marathon and/or ride on a subway. It’s weird how life has a way of working itself out that way. 1865 was a big year for more than just marathon runners, subway riders and sufferers of headaches and other aches and pains, though. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1864, was officially adopted by the United States on December 18, 1865, and with it’s passing, slavery was abolished. Dude, they ended slavery. Slavery. Marathons are ridiculous, subways frustrating and well, aspirin is cool, but let’s be honest, it’s never around when you need it.
1973 (2) vs. 1777 (7)
1973 is our only entry here from the 70’s and it’s a doozy, kind of a heavy-hitter. Oddly enough, 1777 is the only entry from the 1770’s. Crazy, huh? Do they have anything else in common? Well, John Adams and Ben Franklin were able to get France involved in the Revolution in 1777, one of the war’s biggest turning points. Now I don’t know if France or anyone named John Adams or Ben Franklin were involved with the Vietnam War, but America definitely was, and thankfully in 1973 the last U.S. troops finally pulled out of Vietnam. That’s kind of a stretch.
How about this? Secretariat won the Triple Crown, the first horse to do so in 25 years. Got anything along those lines, 1777?
1777 stops and thinks for a second. Well the Continental Congress dropped the Articles of Confederation, a precursor to the Constitution. They also adopted the stars and stripes look as our national flag. Not bad. 1777 is going to pull an upset here.
1893 (3) vs. 1803 (6)
Big things happened during these two years. BIG THINGS. How big you ask? Well friend, in 1803 we went out and bought Louisiana and some of it’s friends and in doing so, doubled the size of the country. It’s called a power grab. Look it up. And then in 1893, Chicago hosted World Fair, or more specifically, the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exhibition. The event was Chicago’s chance to really make a name for itself and it did, hosting a massive shin dig that ran for almost 200 hundred days and featured the debut of the Ferris Wheel. Roughly 25 million attended the fair, traveling from all over the country to do so – a country that was bigger because of said purchase of Louisiana. Hmm. I see what you did there.
Now due in large part to Erik Larson’s excellent book The Devil in the White City, we know that the massive world’s fair wasn’t the only thing happening in Chicago in 1893. H. H. Holmes, soon to be known as America’s first serial killer, was systematically murdering people in a building affectionately called the Murder Castle. I’m sorry 1893. We can’t let something like that slide. You get points for hosting a kick ass festival with dope lights and all, but you subsequently lose points if at the same time a psychopath was running around demonically murdering people. It really is only fair that 1803 moves on.
1969 (4) vs. 1860 (5)
Abraham Lincoln, a Republican apparently, was elected the 16th President in 1860. If we were doing a tournament of Presidents; no doubt Honest Abe would be a 1 seed. Unfortunately 1860 is a 5 seed and running up against some pretty tough competition in the form of 1969. Dude, 1969 is one of the years where a person of my age has to look back and wonder how the hell all that stuff happened in one year. I suppose it’s like these first two months of Trump’s Presidency, where so much is happening we A) can’t keep track and B) are baffled by the seemingly slow passage of time in contrast to the amount of news being made and reported. Massive protests, massive music festivals, massive achievements like bip-bopping on the moon – 1969 had it all, and while we are in no way ever going to make light of Lincoln’s accomplishments, as a year, 1860 just can’t hang with 1969.
1865 (1) vs. 1969 (4)
With slavery ending in 1865 it’s hard to make a case for 1969 somehow being a better year here. But hey, we haven’t even hit 3,000 words yet and we still have another region to go. Let’s make a short and succinct case for why 1969 was the better year. We landed on the moon dude! The moon. Even today that seems like a wild thing to happen, I can’t imagine what it must have been like back then. Interestingly enough, I also can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been a slave and then suddenly granted your freedom; to have the chains removed and to no longer be considered property, but a person. Shit. There’s no way 1865 isn’t going to win here, even if you do consider it a points deducted situation because Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Wait, that’s actually a pretty big deal. It was the first successful attempt at assassinating a President and this isn’t James Garfield or James Polk were talking about. We are talking about Lincoln. How do the years following the Civil War change if Lincoln is still President? No really, how do they? I’m asking because I don’t know.
I kind of think that Lincoln’s assassination actually knocks 1865 off here, but I’m still not sure. Man, this is the first tough one and this is also the first time I need to ask what someone else thinks. So I just did; I asked Elyse, one of the co-hosts of the podcast Differing Opinions on Drake. She went with 1969. We had cars, slavery “was still racist as (expletive deleted)” and if Lincoln had been shot anywhere else besides his head in 1865, he still would have probably died. But if it had happened in 1969, he most likely would have lived.
That settles it. 1969 advances. A second number 1 seed goes down.
1803 (6) vs. 1777 (7)
Let’s see, it’s a massive land expansion versus massive gains for the U.S. against the British in the Revolutionary War. I’ll tell you what – in 1777 the British captured Philadelphia. I lived in Philly for five wonderful years and I love Philly. You take Philly, you take a part of me and that’s not cool.
1969 (4) vs. 1803 (6)
And I don’t know, maybe getting bigger wasn’t the best thing for our country. Sometimes small and cozy works better.
1969 wins this one.
The Reconstruction Era
1789 (1) vs. 1836 (8)
Remember the Alamo? Well, I remember the phrase ‘remember the Alamo’ but honestly, that’s about it. The Battle of the Alamo happened in 1836 and you know, I’m not sure 1836 should have even made this tournament. Hold on (checks something really quick)…Texas wasn’t even part of America in 1836. I’m an idiot.
1804 (2) vs. 1607 (7)
Maybe it’s because I was born and raised in Maine, but I always thought America really got the party started with the Pilgrims in Plymouth Rock. That’s not entirely accurate or even a little accurate. The first settlement in what would be known as America was in Jamestown, down in Virginia. I apologize. This was literally news to me. Three British ships carrying 103 people set up shop in Jamestown in 1607. How did things go? Not good. In only a few months 80% of those settlers had died. These settlers weren’t exactly dudes accustomed to getting their hands dirty and thus weren’t all that prepared for living off the land. By the sound of it, they weren’t prepared at all. They became cannibals! Cannibals! Everyone knows that unless it’s specifically five young cannibals, nothing good comes from cannibalism. Well, not starving if that’s an real issue, which it was.
Over in 1804, we had our first road-trippers, Lewis and Clark. Thomas Jefferson, the President at the time, asked them to set out, take some notes, make some maps. It’s as if Jefferson had recently purchased a car and needed to call in his buddies to take a look under the hood, see what he was working with. Is that a perfect comparison? No. No it isn’t and while my first reaction is to go with 1804, I think I’m going to defer to the folks down in Jamestown. O.G.’s yo. #respect
1933 (3) vs. 1965 (6)
I don’t care what happened in 1965. In 1933 they repealed Prohibition and as a result, I could be writing this with a beer in my hand and no one could say two words about it except maybe, it’s like morning and that’s weird. But I still could!
Wait, what’s that? The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination when it came to voting. Okay. That seems like a big one. What else happened in 1965 then? Oh, we started bombing raids in North Vietnam and there were massive riots in Watts and 200 state troopers in Alabama attacked over 500 Civil Rights demonstrators in Selma? Shit. 1965 was a heavy year. In a whisper: probably could use a drink after all of that, huh?
To be fair, the Great Depression ended in 1933 and Albert Einstein moved to America. I’m sorry. 1933 advances.
1903 (4) vs. 1620 (5)
Again, I really feel foolish not totally knowing about Jamestown. I’m sorry. Who am I apologizing too? I don’t know. That was reactionary. But I bring this up because our friends the Pilgrims crashed the party on the new continent in 1620, setting up Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Fun fact about this group of ramblers is that they were shooting for their homies in Jamestown, but must have caught the wrong wind gust because they ended a few clicks north of the Virginia settlement, which had started to find it’s footing in 1620, but was still in struggle city. What is with these people and ending up in places they weren’t supposed to? Looking at you Columbus.
Meanwhile in 1903, some stuff that noted historians call “super cool shit” happened. There were airplanes and cross country travel via automobile and the very first World Series. All of those were firsts. You know what wasn’t a first, right? Yeah, the Pilgrims. I know that now.
1789 (1) vs 1903 (4)
The first flight is essentially common knowledge at this point, so let’s throw some knowledge down about this first cross country automobile trip that I didn’t know about until about a week ago. It stars a dude named Horatio Jackson, a doctor who loved himself an automobile, which was really just a fad in 1903. Jackson was bet $50 that he couldn’t drive one of his beloved automobiles from San Francisco to New York City, to which Jackson replied with a definitive hell yeah.
Jackson roped in a local mechanic, Sewall Crocker, to roll with him and off they went. A mere 63 days later, they arrived in New York City.
Pretty cool, huh?
I mean, the Constitution took effect in 1789 and that’s decidedly more cool, but 1903 gets an A for effort.
1933 (3) vs. 1607 (7)
I wonder if they had booze in Jamestown? Yeah, I could look it up, but I’m not going too. They probably didn’t. If they did, I bet they would have developed some survival techniques faster and avoided starvation. Some drunk ingenuity might have literally been a life saver. All they needed was that one friend who gets hammered and goes out and builds a shed and they would have been set.
Really what I’m trying to say is that Prohibition was insane and it being over-turned was a pretty big deal for America. I’m just doing so in probably the worst way imaginable.
1789 (1) vs. 1933 (3)
1789 is a sneaky heavy year in American history. Besides the Constitution taking effect, George Washington was inaugurated, the Supreme Court was established, as was the Department of the Treasury. The country’s first public university (University of North Carolina) opened it’s doors and Thanksgiving, arguably our greatest holiday, was made just that, a holiday. 1789 really is a diesel, monster truck of a top seed. 1789 might be the UCONN women’s basketball team of this tournament – a dynamo without weaknesses. The question is not whether or not 1933 can pull off an upset here, but can 1789 be defeated?
Well let’s find out.
The Final Four
1920 vs. 1776
1776 pros: America said enough, became America
1766 cons: it’s tough business starting out on your own, especially when you’re leaving an established act. Just look at Dispatch. Those three dudes all left the band with the hopes of starting their own thing. But you know what? They keep coming back to Dispatch because none of their solo joints can compete with Dispatch. This finally settles it, America the country is better than Dispatch, even though Dispatch’s new song is really, really good.
1920 pros: women get to vote, US population exceeds 100 million, parents can’t drop their kids in a mail box with a few stamps affixed to their head with the hopes that they’ll end up at boarding school
1920s cons: fueled by the desire of religious wackados, the U.S. outlawed booze, resulting in a decade-long crime spree and sneaky boozing, which is never a good thing. There was also a big push for America to mind it’s own business and steer clear of other countries’ business, a penchant for isolation which led to a prolonged entrance into World War II, which could either be viewed as a positive or a negative, depending on who you ask.
You outlawed booze, 1920. Yes, you gave women the right to vote, but you know, it was (and still is) crazy that it took so long.
1969 vs. 1789
On the one hand, the moon. On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately 1969’s negatives are going to crush it’s title dreams now. Ready? Okay let’s go. There were the Stonewall riots in New York, there was the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont that became unofficially ending the 60’s, there were the Manson family murders happened, which also kind of ended the 60’s, and Richard Nixon became President and we all know how that ended.
My Dad had a saying when I was growing up: one oh shit, ruins a whole slew of attaboys. 1969, you had multiple oh shits, more than enough to ruin one hell of a big attaboy (landing on the moon) and definitely enough to end your season.
1776 vs. 1789
Of course it would come down to these two years. It’s like when you’re ranking the discography of a band; somehow the band’s earlier albums are always at the top of the ranking. Originality weighs a lot, it means a lot, and when it comes down to it, while you can always make the case for a band’s third or fourth album being their best, a frequent counter-argument is that without that first or second album, the mistakes made or the lineup changes the band went through or the experimenting with sound the band did, the third or fourth album wouldn’t have either happened or wouldn’t be what it ended up being. We defer to what came first. We can’t help it. And I can’t help it either.
1789’s big claim to fame was both the Constitution taking effect and Washington becoming our first President. But without 1776, none of that matters; neither of those things would have happened. The same can be said for 1920, 1969, 1865, 1933, 1893 and 2008. It all starts with 1776. And that goes for our earlier entries too. Jamestown has significantly less importance if the land they set up camp on stays English soil and while Columbus discovering the new world would still be important, it definitely wouldn’t be from an American stand-point if America never had a stand-point to begin with.
1776 is America’s best year, mainly because it was our first year. Of course there were some parts of the year that poke some holes in it’s resume, but there isn’t a year in America’s checkered history that isn’t exactly that – checkered. That’s why the idea of making America great again was such a ridiculous idea to begin with. America has never been great in the way it was pitched throughout the campaign. If anything, America is great because of it’s flaws and the response to those flaws. The goal of making America great again implied that there was a time in our history when everything was perfect and was an idealized version of the American dream. That’s not the case. I have the Google doc to prove it.
Let’s just agree that America was “great” in 1776. It was by all accounts, metrics and exhaustive research America’s best year, because it was the first one and everything that happened in our country after was largely because of what went down in 1776. If there’s no 1776, this tournament doesn’t happen.
1776 isn’t perfect (you know, because of slaves,) but it’s perfect enough.