The role of great men in history is often noted, but they may exercise little influence compared to great ideas. John Maynard Keynes, who was not an historian or a statesman but an economist, noted that ideas, "both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else."
Today we celebrate the birth of The American Idea, which took form and flight in Jefferson's immortal Declaration 236 years ago today.
It was gruff old John Adams, who could never be accused of being a poet, who insisted that Jefferson and no other write the draft of the Declaration of Independence. Denied the gift of poetry himself, Mr. Adams could recognize it well enough in this Virginian. He may have been a Massachusetts man, with a Puritan's preference for the practical, but he knew the power of great ideas greatly expressed.
John Adams could foresee, as he told his Abigail, that the anniversary of American independence would become an annual festival of freedom to be celebrated with every manner of fireworks, concerts, picnics and general enthusiasm from one end of this land to the other.
He got just one detail wrong. Lawyer that he was, he assumed that the United States of America would celebrate its independence on July 2nd, the date in 1776 when the Continental Congress formally resolved that these colonies are and ought to be free and independent states. Rather than July the Fourth, when the Proclamation was approved and the American Idea was proclaimed to the world.
It was not the formal, legal resolution of independence that would be celebrated in the years ahead, but the words, the vehicle of ideas.
The American Idea, crystallized in Thomas Jefferson's words after centuries of gestation on this continent, is simple and sweeping -- and a terribly complicated business to fulfill: that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those words cannot be said aloud even to this day without their resounding like a poem. It was Walt Whitman, that most American poet, who once said that the greatest poem of all is these united states.
Ideas have consequences. Fateful consequences. A time would come when this still forming nation would experience a new birth of freedom amid the most terrible of our wars. The president who would see the Union through that long, dark night to another dawn's early light would trace his principles back to that selfsame declaration of July 4, 1776.