Pausing at Philadelphia to speak at Independence Hall on his way to assume a burden perhaps even greater than the first president's, Abraham Lincoln confided: "I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."
The sentiments that brought forth the American Revolution remain revolutionary, which is why we remain a revolutionary people despite ourselves. Our ideas shape us. We would not be ourselves if we did not remain a standing provocation to the tyrants of the world.
There is much talk this election year, as there is every election year, of the American Dream, but it is a woefully weak, pathetically reduced version of that dream to imagine it encompasses only material promise. That may be a vital part of the dream, but it is the least of it. For the American Dream encompasses a wealth off hopes and aspirations.
Most of us understand that America is more than a geographical designation, more than a political system, more than borders and laws and storied institutions. It is an idea. And without that American Idea, all our laws and constitutions, history and traditions, would be but an empty tomb where our greatness does not live but is buried.
Adlai Stevenson, another American with a gift for eloquence, understood as much. He knew America was more than a place, that it is an idea. Always has been. And he put the kernel of that idea, as Mr. Jefferson had done before him, in a few simple words:
"When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect."
It has never been put better.