Americans hardly need an excuse to display the flag, but few occasions bring the red, white and blue out in fuller force than our national birthday.
Jeane Kirkpatrick once said, “Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is.” The truth is that the United States is an exceptional nation: It’s the world’s oldest and most stable capitalist democracy, older even than Great Britain, which did not become a mass democracy until the late 19th century.
It’s the first nation founded in an act of rebellion against a colonial power. It’s the first nation founded on the belief that the rights of man are inherent and God-given, and that the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed.
It’s the first nation to recognize that the powers of the state must be limited to those granted by the people and to recognize explicitly that the state was founded to secure their rights. It’s the first nation to be based on a separation of powers — to prevent any branch of government from gaining too much power — and the clear subordination of the military to civilian rule.
It’s also the first nation to have codified all of these understandings in a constitution that was publicly debated and democratically accepted.
Other nations share in some of these traditions, but precisely because the United States was founded — whereas nations such as England and France evolved — it stands, as the British writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out, as the only country in the world based on a creed.
This creed sets us apart. Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul said America’s creed “is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist. And because of that, other, more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
American patriotism is closely linked to American exceptionalism — to the belief that America’s founding marked an immensely hopeful turning point in the history of mankind, a radically new beginning in which “common” men would finally come into their own and be empowered to pursue happiness in any way they saw fit, however crude or vulgar it might appear to their “betters.”
On the Fourth of July, amid the barbecues and the fireworks, the games, the sales and the hoopla, we Americans recall our country’s founding, we renew our faith in its promise, and we offer up a silent prayer of thanks for living in this land of countless blessings and endless opportunities.
Just as we Americans celebrate the “immense human idea” behind our nation’s founding, so should we remember that September day when we were attacked and members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol and pledged unity to bring those responsible to justice.
Earlier generations have recalled Pearl Harbor, the USS Maine, Fort Sumter or Lexington and Concord. Our generation will remember the night of Sept. 11, when Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, spontaneously broke into a chorus of “God Bless America” to show the world that despite our differences — and they are many, they are real, and they continue to this day — we are family, we are one, and we will prevail.
That unity has subsequently been blurred by elections and the cut-and-thrust of politics, but patriotism and love of country live on in each of us, just below the surface. Never let us forget that day, and never let us forget that moment.
And while, in the heat of political battle, we naturally focus on the differences between liberals and conservatives, and their contrasting visions of our country’s future, it is important to remember that regardless of party or political philosophy, we are Americans, we love our country — and we are patriots.
Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).