Last month the nation, especially Illinois, celebrated the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Shortly thereafter we honored Lincoln and Washington on President’s Day. But what America had already done to honor the memory of our great presidents occurred in November when we elected an African American president. When this country was founded there were essentially no African Americans, for there were only Americans and Africans who lived in America, most of whom were slaves. Even freed slaves weren’t fully accepted as Americans.
I believe each nation possesses a National Spirit that encompasses its collective values, ideals, and vision, and the meaning and purpose they give to the nation. A nation’s spirit endures despite all the changes as the nation grows and evolves. The essential aspect of the National Spirit is the Sacred Mission, the effort to turn the nation’s highest vision into reality, in order to live its purpose. The Sacred Mission represents what the nation exists to do at its best. The Spirit binds the nation together by the force of its Mission.
The American Spirit includes our basic political principles. The nation is often reminded of these principles and their origins when a new president is inaugurated. In the case of President Barack Obama his very presence was a reminder. Before the inauguration he had already deliberately linked himself to Abraham Lincoln, from announcing his candidacy at the Illinois Capital, to following the same route Lincoln took to get to his inauguration, to taking the oath of office on a Bible used by The Great Emancipator.
Obama’s Inaugural Address echoed the words and inspiration of Lincoln. (Although I try to avoid quotations, this post needs to be an exception in order to convey the eloquence of the subjects.) “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history,” Obama said,” to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation; the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
Another recent president who tried to establish connections with a celebrated predecessor was Bill Clinton. Clinton and Al Gore honored the memory of Thomas Jefferson by travelling from TJ’s home at Monticello to Washington for their inauguration. And almost thirty years earlier a non-president reminded the whole world of the American Spirit by linking Lincoln to Jefferson. In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared that the Founders had signed a promissory note to future generations. “This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men and white men, would be guaranteed the ‘inalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’. He had “a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” The nation’s creed is part of the American Spirit.
Just a few years before King spoke President John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address had also reminded the world of the American Spirit. He had said that “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbearers fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget that we are heirs of that first revolution.”
The American Spirit has a set off sacred scriptures and a number of prophets. Our scriptures consist of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. The Declaration is the most fundamental because it sets out our basic political faith. President Lincoln, one of our greatest prophets, considered himself a disciple of Jefferson, believing that “the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society.” He named his Republican Party after Jefferson’s party of the same name. (This led to the curious fact that both parties count TJ as their founder, since the Democratic Party evolved from Jefferson’s original party.)
In the Gettysburg address Lincoln amplified the principles of the Declaration and elevated it above the Constitution by proclaiming it America’s founding document and statement of national purpose. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Before the Civil War he had called the nation to “re-adopt the Declaration of Independence.” He understood that the ideals declared by TJ had yet to be fulfilled, and they were not intended for America alone. Lincoln said, “I had thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere,” and that it “held out a great promise to all the people of the world to come.”
Before becoming president Lincoln said that the fathers who issued the Declaration “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Well, America in 2008 may not have perfectly attained its ideal, but it has come so close that we all can feel proud. The noble idea that President Obama referred to has truly been “passed on from generation to generation”.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.