7.05.2010

Happy Birthday to a Nation, a People, and an Idea


"Oh, there have been revolutions before and since ours. But those revolutions simply exchanged one set of rules for another. Ours was a revolution that changed the very concept of government." - Ronald Reagan, 1981

The story of our Founding Fathers has been glamorized, sanitized, and co-opted to the point of absurdity. And yet let us not lose sight of the extraordinary feat they accomplished of conceiving, forming, and nurturing "a more perfect union." Their act was audacious - in signing the Declaration of Independence, they were sealing their condemned fate as traitors if they lost. It was thoughtful - drawing from concepts as far back as Plato, Locke, and Rousseau. And it was simultaneously revolutionary and basic - that "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Note from the last clause of that famous sentence what right has been thought of as divinely endowed to us - "the pursuit of Happiness." Not happiness itself. This is what has defined this great country we call America. Here we are about pursuit. Here, uniquely among all nations now and in history, are the freest paths to opportunity and prosperity. We may have many scars, many skeletons, many topics we disagree on, many issues we are getting wrong. But we, as a nation and a people and an idea - are still worth celebrating and emulating.

Two nights ago, as Amy and I were sitting along the waterfront, American flags flying everywhere, crowds gathered for a free concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra on the eve of the Fourth of July, we could not help but ponder what Franklin and Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton and Jay would have thought of us, circa 2010. Their letters indicate they had history in mind, that they had a sense that what they were doing was going to matter, that they were planting the seeds for a mighty forest to grow.

But could they have conceived a nation 50 states and 300 million people strong, a superpower unparalleled in military and economic and intellectual and creative power? Could they have anticipated that checks and balances, peaceful transfer of executive power, and an orderly process by which laws are passed and upheld would not only survive but thrive to the point that we are the blueprint for fledgling democracies throughout the world? Amy and I could only marvel, with goosebumps, at the marvel they would have had in their hearts.

God, bless America. May we bless it, too. For it has had, and may it continue to have, an extraordinary run in the history of mankind.

"Just imagine the extraordinary audacity it took, 233 years ago, for a group of patriots to cast off the title of 'subject' for 'citizen,' and put ideas to paper that were as simple as they were revolutionary: that we are equal; that we are free; that we can pursue our full measure of happiness and make of our lives what we will." - Barack Obama, 2009

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