As a journalist, I’ve been fortunate to travel the globe to witness firsthand how others live. The gray, grinding sameness of everyday life in the old Soviet Union; the favelas of Rio, teeming with hundreds of thousands of the poor whose dark shanties cling to hillsides under the blinding Brazilian sun; the mud huts of Afghanistan, where half the population – the female half – is enslaved in a world without education (and the male half, frankly, isn’t much better); the dusty villages of Romania, where a proud and hardworking people find it all but impossible to overcome the damage done by decades of Communism and government corruption.
It is so very true that all I need to do to appreciate the United States of America is leave it for a little while.
I’ve wondered, more times than I can count, what it is that brought about such profound differences in the standards of living I’ve seen. It isn’t just natural resources; Russia and the Soviet states had tremendous resource bases, and yet on my first trip to Moscow, I found myself marveling that this was a nation that managed to be first into space, and was so poor. Brazil, too, is a nation awash in the material needed to build a civilization, yet the poverty is staggering. Why?
I’m in awe when I think of the powerful minds that came together to craft our Declaration of Independence and, later, the U.S. Constitution.
How is it that, among a population estimated at the time to be about two-and-a-half million, the colonies were able to send to Philadelphia men like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams?
Why was a man like George Washington available to assume a leadership role, first of a ragtag army and then of a fledgling nation?
How is it that a self-educated backwoods lawyer like Abraham Lincoln stepped forward to shoulder the burden of seeing a riven nation through four years of its bloodiest and most destructive war?
These are the questions about America that enthrall me to this day. Are we as a nation simply a living testament to the power of freedom? Can it be that unleashing the individual energies of human beings to dream, aspire, perspire, perhaps fail, retry and possibly change course – is that what makes America great?
Why is it that our relatively young nation has become the world’s central pillar, the font of innovation, the birthplace of everything from aviation to the Internet, from blue jeans to the light bulb.
We’ve always been a country that encourages individual responsibility and rewards personal achievement. We’ve also recognized the divine power and guiding hand of almighty God. Those men who met in Philly to turn their collective backs on the king and later drafted the Constitution weren’t keen on establishing a state religion, but that’s far from suggesting that they were not religious men. They were, and their writings reflect it.
We are “endowed by (our) Creator with certain unalienable rights…among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Think of the power contained in those few words – the notion that God gives each of us the right to live, in freedom and doing that which we choose to do for ourselves, furthering our own ambitions and leaving our neighbors to do the same. Embracing those ideas, this once-tiny nation of dreamers set loose to pursue individual aspirations and establish self-government, and it became the mightiest nation the world has ever known.
Ours is the place to which millions around the world want to come, to work, to dream, to build – to pursue happiness, their God-given right.
I’ve written in the past about the experience of seeing my son, an Army 1st lieutenant, head to Afghanistan and then return home, safe and sound. This first Independence Day since his return is a special one for him, for me and for our family.
Sending him off to a war launched in response to those who hate our freedoms makes me all the more determined to cherish them – and to try to preserve them for those who follow.
Our country isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be – but it’s far ahead of whatever is in second place.
America, let’s celebrate this birthday! We should all be proud to call ourselves Americans.