WASHINGTON -- Calling the Declaration of Independence more than words on an aging parchment, President Obama marked the Fourth of July on Sunday by urging Americans to live the principles that founded the nation as well as celebrate them.
"This is the day when we celebrate the very essence of America and the spirit that has defined us as a people and as a nation for more than two centuries," Obama told guests at a South Lawn barbecue honoring service members and their families.
"We celebrate the principles that are timeless, tenets first declared by men of property and wealth but which gave rise to what Lincoln called a new birth of freedom in America -- civil rights and voting rights, workers' rights and women's rights, and the rights of every American," he said.
"And on this day that is uniquely American we are reminded that our Declaration, our example, made us a beacon to the world."
Obama noted that people across the country were firing up their barbecues and enjoying the company of family and friends.
"Now, of course I'll admit that the backyard's a little bigger here, but it's the same spirit," Obama said to laughter. "Michelle and I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate America's birthday than with America's extraordinary men and women in uniform and their families."
With first lady Michelle Obama at his side, Obama spoke from a White House balcony overlooking the South Lawn. The estimated 1,200 guests included active-duty members of the military and their families, wounded troops, people with family members overseas, and families of troops who have died.
"Today we also celebrate all of you, the men and women of our armed forces, who defend this country we love," he told the enthusiastic group.
Sections of the crowd screamed and cheered in turn as Obama individually thanked each service branch, naming an exemplary member of each who stood on the balcony with the president and first lady.
Obama, who wore a blue short-sleeve shirt, and his wife spent about 15 minutes shaking hands and exchanging greetings with eager members of the crowd, who pressed in to shake hands and take photos. Many of the children on hand had red, white and blue face paint and sparkly American flags decorating their skin.
Guests ate traditional July Fourth fare -- hot dogs, hamburgers and grilled chicken with potato salad and corn on the cob. Plenty of red, white and blue decorated the South Lawn, from colorful tablecloths to paper lanterns hanging from trees.
Singer Brandi Carlile, rock band The Killers, comedian Cedric the Entertainer and the U.S. Marine Band performed for the gathering.