America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed.G. K. Chesterton
Happy Birthday America! Two hundred and forty six years later, your amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and fruited plains continue to enthrall us while your social, cultural, and political upheavals persist in frustrating those of us living through them. We struggle with the imperfections of our nation, our system, our institutions, our leaders, and those with whom we disagree. Meanwhile, we bask in the freedoms, opportunities, and security afforded us by the power, economic muscle, and momentum of a country that has defied massive challenges to become, and remain, a world leader through all of it. Three cheers for staying in the game despite the unlikeliness of it all.
I recently finished Ronald White’s American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, a well-balanced book on the Civil War General and 18th President of the United States. I enjoyed the book, and getting to know Grant, and will share more about my experience of him in a future post. For today, the key takeaway from American Ulysses, is a sense that as much as things have changed, so much remains the same. Nearly every historical book I’ve read leaves me with such an impression. The Civil War was basically another war of independence. Yes, it was a war to maintain the union and to banish slavery, but it was also a war to decide what kind of country we would be. It was a war of heart and identity.
We’ve been fighting the war for heart and identity from our very founding: in our media, in our courtrooms, in our legislatures, in our books, in our classrooms, in our places of work, and even in our streets. Our founders knew that our great democratic experiment would be difficult to maintain as we grew, factions formed, and people did what they always do: seek personal gain and the power to control it, often at the expense of others. Even with the best of intentions, the path forward has never been straight, easy, or effective in taking us to where we hoped it would. However, the process, restraints, and pillars of our founding have somehow kept us lumbering forward, and intact, through it all. A fact that is truly amazing.
The noise is deafening right now. And, it has always been deafening. Sure, we’ve got exponentially more of everything: people, money, sources of information, special interests, good, bad, ugly, and complexity. But we need to take heart in the fact that not everyone is satisfied with everything going on. That means that our system is working. The courts should be checking the legislatures and the executive branches. Our legislatures should be working to satisfy voting constituents. Our executive leaders should be pushing forward with promises made during campaigns, and our system should be pushing back when they overreach or fail to convince. We are, and should be, debating all of the above.
It’s often ugly. It’s frequently brutal. We feel anger, frustration, and disappointment. We didn’t get what we wanted. We don’t get what we feel is right. Good. Our system depends on disappointment to maintain balance. Our country moves forward and remains intact by moving slowly. It is working. Imperfectly, yes, but necessarily. Do we want more integrity from our leaders? Yes. Would more prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice be nice to see from those who represent us? Absolutely. There will always be room for improvement and we should strive to be better and continue to demand more from our leaders.
Despite it all, would we want to be anywhere else in the world? Not me. Give me the brawling, biting, battling, and sometimes baffling, political system we have. There are too many of us to have complete agreement. That’s ok. I’ll take the rough stuff with my freedom of speech, freedom to move about, freedom to pursue happiness, and freedom to worship. I’m happy to keep the security I feel within this country and the chance to find my own way within a framework designed to enable and protect such freedoms.
Below is a post I shared in July 2020 revisiting some of the beauties of our country and the system that perpetuates it. It is a good reminder on this particular birthday that we are incredibly blessed to be Americans, and though we may not always agree, ours is a country, and an ideal, worth fighting for. I remain unapologetically American.
July 8, 2020
On the night of July 4, 2020, we walked outside at 9:50pm to the raucous sound of fireworks. The sky around our neighborhood was lit with cascading sparks and bright, colorful explosions. That normally quiet time of evening erupted into a symphony of sounds ranging from deep booms to staccato cracks to screaming whistles. We could see and hear displays all around and very near to us as well as more distant rumbles of larger productions occurring around the city.
What an amazing place to be.
In a time when we collectively struggle to find reasons to celebrate, Independence Day, this Fourth of July, still captures the imagination of our great Nation. Our awe and wonder at the rhythmic explosions and night skies lit by fiery projectiles launched to commemorate the founding of the United States reflects a feisty joy that is uniquely American. Regardless of the challenges of our time, we remember. We still remember.
[T]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.George Washington
The United States was brought into existence in a unique way. Chesterton referenced the Declaration of Independence as the “creed” that defines the purpose and justification for our country:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
For Chesterton, its unique founding and purpose made America exceptional. Our country was founded on a set of principles laid out by its founders and adopted by its people. The United States was born out of a quest for freedom and a commitment to the model of government by the consent of the governed.
As for purpose, America exists to protect these self-evident truths, first for our citizens and then for those crying for freedom from oppression in the broader world. It remains a beacon of freedom – a light for the world. Ronald Reagan described it thus:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
What an amazing place to be.
Our creed, our purpose, unite us. Often in unseen ways. Sure, we disagree on many things. How can such a nation think with one mind on everything? But we agree on the principles. We agree that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights and that we must protect these rights and the freedoms available to us within our country. Debating how best to do that is not a bad thing. Disagreeing over the means is to be expected but the principles remain.
At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln captured the essence of our creed and the necessity of our struggles:
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.“
Looking up at the bright lights cascading across the sky, I considered our “shining city” and what “full measure of devotion” means for those of us living in these times. Like any relationship, it is the edges marked by challenges and disagreements that define us. More importantly, it is how we navigate those edges that defines our relationships. Great relationships require great efforts along those edges. Do we believe in the shining city? Are we prepared to invest our full measure of devotion to defend her?
I think we do and that we are. Goodness abounds across America – from sea to shining sea. Hope stands, sometimes hesitantly but always resiliently in our city streets, among our tall trees, across our mountainsides, along our great fields, in our homes, amid our offices, and within our churches. Watching the night skies lit by lights of joy and celebration affirms the possibility. We remember or, at the very least, feel connected to the legacy of freedom for which others fought and the principles for which they died.
Even in the times when we decided imperfectly or failed to realize the best within ourselves, the creed guided us and helped return us to the better part of our selves and our intentions. Glorious and at times broken we progressed and continue along that path today. And still, the opportunity to improve, the freedom to fail, and the chance to pursue happiness remain.
What an amazing place to be.
When you lament the troubles of today or fall into the despair, and error, of believing today’s problems are unique, consider the full extent of our 244+ years of exploring our own edges; the highs and lows of social, cultural, economic, intellectual, spiritual, and physical upheaval. We have traversed great valleys and stormy seas to arrive at this day. Alexander Hamilton observed:
“The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.”
From the founding to now, the brawl that we call history has shaped us into that “shining city.” Gloriously imperfect. Outrageously generous. Fiercely independent. Persistently hopeful. Stunningly innovative. Surprisingly resilient. Yes, there are those who seek to subvert what it is but they have always been there. Always.
Our challenge is to embrace it all and find joy in the difficulties as well as the triumphs. Brighter days are ahead. Always ahead. And though the challenges will also continue, we are made for this. Our nation is made for this. The America we know is bright, shining, rough, edgy, and even now, principled. If we stop long enough to remember, our creed will return and the principles that guide us will emerge in the broader patterns of movement that define our American experience.
What an amazing place to be.
The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.Benjamin Franklin