Charles Carroll was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, outliving Jefferson and Adams by 6 years. He was also the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration, and, perhaps, the man who had the most to lose by doing so.
Carroll was the wealthiest man in the colonies at the beginning of the Revolution with a fortune estimated at $2 million dollars – hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s terms. He could have stayed on the sidelines and lived comfortably, but he risked his fortune, as well as his life, for freedom.
Carroll had the satisfaction of living to see the fiftieth year of American independence. He died shortly thereafter, leaving us with these words:
“I do now here recommend to the present and future generations the principles of that important document as the best earthly inheritance their ancestors could bequeath to them, and pray that the civil and religious liberties they have secured in my country may be perpetuated to the remotest posterity and extend to the whole family of man!”
Our Founders promise and Carroll’s bequest have materialized into the greatest nation the world has ever seen. The principles they established have brought us from thirteen obscure colonies to the world’s only superpower. They have established new standards of life, liberty, and happiness. Free men and those yearning to be free still look to the United States as the light of the world and the best hope for the future of mankind.
At the same time, many here and abroad now believe we are failing to live up to our own ideals. A few years ago, the European Commission sponsored a survey to see “What the World Thinks of America.” Sixty-five percent of those polled throughout the world described America as arrogant; 33 percent said we were antagonistic. Only 23 percent of those surveyed thought our economic policies should be copied. An even smaller number – 18 percent – spoke favorably of our popular culture.
Less than 20 percent of all Americans have a passport. Only a fraction of the world has visited our country. Most of what we know of the rest of the world and what they know of us comes from the media.
With this understanding, the State Department convened a meeting shortly after September 11, 2001 to develop a strategy to address anti-Americanism. One of the conveners of the meeting suggested the best way to address the apparent misconception of America was to broadcast old movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” to show those in doubt what we are really like.
Tim Love, former Vice Chairman of Omnicom, was among those present. Surprised by this suggestion, he responded by asking what good that could possibly do. In an age when every program we see is instantly available anywhere in the world, a public relations effort of this kind only invites an inevitable comparison between what we are, what we think we are, and what we would like to be.
President Eisenhower said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first happen in the heart of America.” It follows that whatever change is to come to pass in America – and in the world’s perception of America – must first happen in the hearts of its people.
Most people want to have what we have. America and the world would be better served if we lived our lives so they want to be what we are.
Our greatest export has always been our values. We have to be the change we want to see in the world.
Every little deed counts. For all of our failings – and we must each admit we have some – there is redemption in the fact that no man can be faithful, honest, and true without the world being better for it. Even the humblest among us can, by shear act of will, help to make America great and the world a better place.
At the birth of our nation, a citizen approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “What kind of government have you given us?”
“A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”
The Republic will endure as long as we continue to cherish the ideals of the men who created it. From Bunker Hill to Berlin, the best of our blood have fought to defend democracy. But that is not enough. The battle for freedom is not reserved for the few or the brave. The battle for democracy must be fought here – as well as there – day by day, with the knowledge that liberty won today may be lost tomorrow.
“There is a new America every morning when we wake,” Adlai Stevenson said, “and that new America is the sum of many small changes.” Our task is to guide these changes and decide what kind of America we want it to be.
“Every year millions of Americans come to Washington to visit our national shrines – the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol,” former Secretary John Gardner said. “But the spirit of the nation does not reside in these physical structures. It is in the minds of the citizens who come to look at the structures. That is where a vital society begins; and, if it ends, that is where it will end.”
If we lose faith, if we stop believing, if we become complacent and content with where we are and what we have, if we stop caring and trying to make things better, if we waver in our commitment to equality, liberty, and justice, the monuments of our nation will become meaningless and the dream that is known as America will disappear.
You and people like you make our country great. The spirit of America is strengthened with every act of individual achievement, every word spoken for freedom, every vote cast in an election, and every extension of liberty. The soul of America is nourished with every act of courage, kindness, and compassion.
We the people. The story of America is our story. Today and tomorrow, America will be whatever we are.