In the eyes of the world, America stands for one thing above all: the promise of freedom. Even people who have never laid eyes on an American know of the promise our country represents. They know that promise means a better life, a life of freedom.
From the moment our Founding Fathers first put ink to the parchment that is the Declaration of Independence and pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to create this nation, that promise has come alive. If the Revolution had failed, and the massive power of the British Empire had prevailed over the colonists, the signers of the Declaration would have been rounded up, tried and executed for treason against the Crown.
Their properties and private fortunes would have been expropriated. Their families would have been left penniless and disgraced. When the Founders made the commitment to stand together and break free of British rule in the name of liberty and independence, they were truly putting everything on the line.
The roots of American liberty and patriotism were planted at the very beginning of the Republic. Each generation has been supported and nourished by the sacrifices and commitments of the patriotic Americans who have gone before it. Each generation has been charged with carrying the torch of liberty passed to it, and keeping that flame alive as best it could before passing the torch forward, still burning brightly.
Subtly or overtly, each generation passes American exceptionalism to the next, be it through innovations like Henry Ford and his assembly line; or Thomas Edison and the light bulb; or Steve Jobs and the iPhone, iPod and iPad; or through the encouraging words of parents to their children, assuring them that they can grow up to be anything they like if they put their minds to it and work hard.
“Let the American youth never forget that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood of their ancestors,” Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story once said. That’s a lesson for all of us to remember.
Because of America’s dedication to the permanent truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence, our nation has a special responsibility to uphold the cause of liberty both at home and abroad. While we have not always lived up to this responsibility, no nation has aspired so high and achieved so much as ours.
To cynical “post-patriotic” Americans, this may seem like an empty boast. Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, once noted that all too many Americans have fallen into the habit of “judging ourselves by the Sermon on the Mount, and everybody else on the curve.”
But one need only look beyond oneself and try to see the world through the eyes of others — the eyes of those liberated from the oppression of Saddam Hussein, or the eyes of Holocaust victims liberated by our troops — to recognize that they knew they weren’t trading one master for another. They were being set free.
Bred deep in the American psyche is the concept that the United States is a unique force for good in the world — a superpower that has not sought, and does not seek, to expand its borders through conquering and colonizing other lands. Secretary of State Colin Powell put it this way: “We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the last century to put down oppression. We defeated fascism, we defeated communism, we saved Europe in World War I and World War II . Did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. That’s the kind of nation we are.”
And that’s the kind of nation we celebrate each Fourth of July. We have much to be proud of — and much to live up to.
Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).