It's worth remembering today as we celebrate Independence Day in the United States that our country is one of the only countries on the face of the planet which are not founded on tribalism or a common culture or established by conquering kings or lords. We are not a Christian country, though most of us are Christian, nor are we an English country, though many of us are part English or Irish or Scottish and most of us are english-speaking. We are not a country established on old feudal boundaries, on the boundaries established by the Roman Empire, or on common cultural boundaries or an aggregate of cultures who are in perpetual war with each other, as they are in the Middle East or with the Basque and the French and Spanish, or the Northern Irish with Great Britain.
Instead, our country is the very first country in the world established on an idea. Ours is unique in that our country is founded on the ideas of egalitarianism, democratic concent by the governed rather than the divine right of kings, and on constitutional law rather than the wimsy of an elite who gained their right to rule through accident of birth.
Today we celebrate the birth of this country. We, however, do not mark the birth of our country by when our Constitution was established (September 17, 1787), nor the ratification of the Articles of Confederation (March 1, 1781). We do not celebrate the birth of our country from the dates of the opening shots of the War of Independence (April 18, 1775 with the seizure of colonial militias in Massachusettes and the following day with the ride of Paul Revere), nor do we celebrate the surrender of Cornwallis at the war's end on October 19, 1781 or the formal ending with the Treaty of Paris, signed September 3, 1783 or ratified on January 14, 1784.
No, we celebrate the birth of our country by the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which both declares our independence from the British, and more importantly establishes a national creed, one that declares formally the principles of government--the very principles on which our country is founded.
If we are a country established on an idea, the idea is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, a document whose signing we celebrate today. And that creed?
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. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Our national creed, these handful of words, establish now and forever that our country is established on the principles of egalitarianism ("all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness").
It establishes that we are a country of the people, of government by the governed: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed".
And implicit in these words is the implication that governments exist not to aggrandize their leaders but to protect the safety and happiness of it's citizens.
And it establishes that as government is established by the governed, man has the right to alter that government through the mechanisms of that government--indeed, prudence dictates that men work with the governments they've established so long as it is possible to alter that government to protect their rights.
It also establishes the right to revolution when government no longer represents the governed, but only after all other possible avenues have been exhausted. (Keep in mind that this clause is not to be taken lightly. Within the context of this creed, the King of England was in the process of disolving the colonial government of Massachusetts and seizing it's standing militia, established to protect it's citizens.)
Many people for two hundred years and change have tried to understand what makes America great. Guesses have ranged from religion to our ruthlessness in exploiting the natives and importing slaves, to guesses about our natural resources, each have theorized reasons for our greatness--all guesses which are easily dismantled and demonstrably wrong.
We are a great nation because encoded in the fundamental ideas that make our nation is the idea that we are a nation of individuals who consent to be governed--and thus, more than any other nation in the world, we honor and respect individuals, who are then free to achieve individual greatness, and thus contribute to our national greatness.
And it is the establishment of that idea that we celebrate today.