The American Spirit

Published 9:06 am Wednesday, July 8, 2015

by Randy Forbes

Growing up, I always loved the Fourth of July. At the time I couldn’t quite name it, but something about that day always seemed hopeful and a bit magical. Our family gathered together and laughed a lot. The emphasis was always on freedom (even if freedom to me at that point only meant getting to stay up a little bit later at night). The energy of the neighborhood seemed to swell just a bit. Fireworks crackled. The echo of the American spirit rang throughout the community.

Today, I still feel the same sense of hope on the Fourth of July. Though today, I know what it is that I’m captured by: it’s the spirit of American exceptionalism.

Critics knock the concept of exceptionalism because they say it expresses arrogance. But exceptionalism doesn’t mean we are better, it means our nation is unique. American exceptionalism has everything to do with our origins. 239 years ago, our nation put its foot down against the rule of King George and we defeated the greatest superpower of that day. Our strategy for independence was novel. We relied on consensus, intellect, and courage.

The American experiment is unique because we were founded on the principles of liberty, opportunity, prosperity, and responsibility. Before America, no government in the history of the world had successfully committed to a limited, accountable government of the people, by the people, for the people. Perhaps even greater than that, no government had acknowledged that its citizens had God-given, inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — that could not be stripped away.

The greatness of America was birthed when quills were scratched on parchment as our Founders signed the Declaration of Independence and set in motion a nation that would become a beacon of peace and freedom to the world. The American experiment is distinct, and so it is exceptional.

Some say American exceptionalism is on the decline. Watching the news or looking around in Washington, it’s easy to feel that way and to be discouraged. Many Americans face this weekend with deep concerns over our country’s future and heavy hearts about the world we will leave our children to face. I share those concerns. Sometimes it feels like our country is slipping through our fingers. Yet, I still see expressions of American exceptionalism every day. I see it when families come together to start a business and work hard to turn a dream into a reality. I see it when communities pull together in the aftermath of tragedy or national disaster. I see it when individuals give their time and talent to different charities, expecting nothing in return. I see it when we make scientific discoveries, when we stand for the oppressed, when we fight for religious freedom, and when we build strong futures for our families. As Americans, we offer unique contributions that collectively build the American spirit.

And on the Fourth of July, I see it when we wave our American flags and stand a little taller in the face of Old Glory. I see it when our kids paint their faces with brightly colored red, white, and blue, expressing the innocence, hardiness, valor, vigilance, and justice for which our nation stands. I see it when we pause to shake the hand of a veteran, or bow our heads in prayer for those on the frontlines, far from their families today.

Exceptionalism cannot be stripped away because it is a part of our origins. The greatness of a nation comes from its foundation. Yet, we cannot treat our national values as a trophy to be set on the shelf and admired. We as a nation have a responsibility to cultivate them.

You see, the exceptional nature of our nation wasn’t freely given. It was earned. Our Founding Fathers risked everything for it. They pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors over a fragile document that declared our nation independent. Our men and women in uniform still risk everything for it today.

Our exceptionalism depends greatly on our willingness to defend it. If we allow ourselves to stray from our founding principles, then we are less likely to use them as a measuring stick as we make decisions about the future of our nation. A renewing of the American spirit starts by remembering who we are. Pulitzer prize winning historian Michael Kammen said “A civilization without memory ceases to be civilized. A civilization without history ceases to have identity. Without identity there is no purpose; without purpose civilization will wither.”

This Fourth of July, let us be captivated by the celebration and magic of the day, but let us too remember where we’ve been, for it will guide us forward. Let us teach our children about our national identity and unique heritage. Let us look the future squarely in the face and recommit to fighting for the principles of liberty, justice, and limited, accountable government this nation was founded on. America has pulled through tough challenges in the past. America can do it once again, if we remember who we are and return to the ideals that made us exceptional in the first place. That is why, despite the challenges, we are able to look forward with hope and confidence — because we are Americans, and this grand experiment in liberty and democracy that we call America was worth fighting for in 1776, and is still worth fighting for today.

RANDY FORBES represents Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. For contact information, see