America was founded on the most powerful set of ideas the world has ever known: People have “inalienable rights” just because they are human. Government exists primarily to guard those rights. The government draws its power from the consent of the governed. When the government ceases to have that consent, it is no longer valid. People must have the freedom to pursue their best visions.
Within that framework, we have fashioned distinctly American values that celebrate the human spirit: individual worth, a respect for the efforts of others, a healthy regard for dissent, a respect for tradition but an equal enthusiasm for change, a yearning for justice.
No, we have not always lived up to those ideals. But we keep trying. That is the most important American value of all: to keep reaching, always trying to be better than we are.
As we study the past, we must study it together. We have a shared history, and that history can teach us all about the mistakes America has made and the opportunities it still offers. We can learn the visions and values we share, the visions and values that make up the common American culture. America should not be about reinventing the past to suit current sensibilities. America is about reinventing the future.
Dr. Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian, has written: “Every viable nation has to have a common culture to survive in peace.”
This Fourth of July, let us celebrate that common culture, our “Americanism” and vow not only to survive in peace, but to thrive.
(This editorial was first published on July 4, 1991.)