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The American idea

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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.

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.

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