People like to compare the United States to an empire or totalitarian dictatorship of some sort, and that's understandable; the USA is old news. But it's easy to forget just how truly groundbreaking it was 230 odd years ago. This hardy little group of colonists had, in 1789, an elected head of state, elected congress, a legislatively-confirmed Supreme Court and highly public participation in matters of law, military and transportation. Women, of course, were excluded - the USA wasn't that far ahead of its time - but it's helpful to compare the USA of 1789 with its European contemporaries.

France was in its 143rd year of utter, absolute monarchy; empires rose and fell in the time it took the Estates-General to meet twice. Germany and Italy were still a patchwork of tiny fiefdoms, though clear winners had begun to emerge, and Poland, who had the closest Continental flirtation with constitutional monarchy, was mercilessly carved up by its three larger neighbours who will not be named to protect their identities. Great Britain, of course, had a more hands-off monarchy, but only 46 years had passed since the last time a King led his army into battle (in any case, monarchs with porphyria are usually hands-off).

Non-European examples don't fare much better. China was ruled by the Qianlong Emperor, whose advanced age and willingness to trust resulted in an extraordinarily corrupt bureaucracy, whose head, Heshen, was worth the equivalent of fifteen consecutive years of Imperial revenue. That's like the head of the IRS being worth 30 trillion dollars. That level of graft doesn't go unnoticed, and so after Qianlong's death Heshen was sentenced to death by "slow slicing". Sounds delicious.

Contemporary British newspapers had difficulty properly describing George Washington's job - he is variably described as a Despot, a Suzerain, a Dictator, or an elected-Dictator. Naturally, the British public of 1789 would have difficulty imagining an elected head of state - they still struggle with the concept - and the most people knew of a "President" was as a particularly unsavoury character of the Marquis de Sade's.

The world eventually caught up with the United States, though it was in no real hurry, and now American accomplishments seem very ordinary and pedestrian. Fortunately, America has under its belt a very compelling and heroic foundation story, the kind of true-life David-and-Goliath battle that every Hollywood producer wants to exploit (Cuba has the same, which probably explains 50 years of fruitless standoff). Countries or governments with a tear-inducing, epic foundation tend to last longer and remain more coherent over time, as opposed to countries like Canada which were legislative acts passed by British parliament. The 1867 Hansard is riveting, though.

But 235 years is not such a long time. Rome and Britain each clocked in a thousand years on the job (though Rome went into retirement soon after), and depending on how you measure it, France may have existed for as many as 1300 years. East Asians naturally scoff at European records, with modern China and Japan each having been founded roughly around the same time as Rome; third place in the Asia Cup goes to Korea, whose run of 977 consecutive years without a lost-time accident was ended by Japan in 1894, only twenty-three years away from retirement. Tough loss. But Beware Greece or Egypt when they talk of being the oldest; theirs are not legitimate claims. I could cut a slice out of Iraq and call it Assyria, but that does not make it so.

By any measure, the America of old was not any more benevolent than its current edition. It's not a point I even have to make, given the generally widespread knowledge of it having once had slaves. The primary difference is that today's cruelty is concealed in creepy Bureaucratic Euphemismage - inmates of old were simply sent to "the hole"; today they are sent to an "Intensive Special Management Unit." Police suspects used to be given beatdowns; today, it is a "Non-Compliant Use of Force Order". At least if the old USA gave you a beating because they plain didn't like you, they told you to your face. But that's what happens when young nations start to mature - they don't get any less violent, just better at concealing it - and truly gifted wordsmiths can make a good living.