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Beer, barbecue and commonsense
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The invitation arrived via e-mail with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer."

The invitation offered free barbecue and beer at a nearby home.

In Georgia, where we take our barbecue and our beer seriously, this was an invitation that would be hard to refuse. The event was put on by a group of concerned citizens not affiliated with any party or organization, just citizens who were worried enough about our nation to take action.

It was held on Sunday afternoon, in a private backyard festooned with red, white and blue balloons tied to the mailbox and spinning in the breeze. Homemade signs greeted my husband, two children and I, as we walked up the driveway and onto a large, covered front porch. Made from poster board, the signs resembled a school project more than a polished political message, but somehow that made them effective.

The crowd was mixed in age; with about a dozen children running about and playing on the backyard swing set. My husband estimates that there were about 100 there.

After mingling for 30 minutes or so, three speakers talked for just a few minutes each. The first, a doctor, addressed health care "reform." The second, a financier, addressed government spending. I was the third, closing with American history.

While the other two speakers were up, I, my children and the other people sat on folding chairs or on the grass -- truly a grass-roots event.

The doctor talked about the recently passed health care bill and predicted it would lead to rationing and worse care; the financier described the exploding deficit and predicted higher interest rates. The longer they talked, the more people began frowning and shaking their heads.

When it was my turn, I looked out and saw their faces, concerned but determined, and I realized that they all had all turned out to show their love and support for America.

For the past few months, I have been researching for my book, "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches that Every American Should Read" (Regnery, November 2010).

Researching our American history, I’ve begun to realize that it’s how we talk about shared experiences, how we remember them and what we emphasize that builds national character.

That’s why I talked about American stories and American exceptionalism. Revolutionary leader Patrick Henry understood in 1775 that it was inevitable that we would fight the British for our freedom, even as others were hoping for a peaceful resolution. His speech in support of a colonists’ militia ended with the now-famous line, "Give me liberty or give me death." America values liberty.

President Abraham Lincoln fought to keep the union together, then fought to end slavery. We value unity and equality.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to "tear down this wall." We value political and economic freedom.

America is exceptional not because of who we are as individuals, but because of the model of self-government that our Founding Fathers created and that we continue to practice today. We recognize that each of us was created by God and given certain unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We then loan these rights to the government, which we replace if it fails to heed the will of the people.

The government is failing to heed the will of the people, but people are getting involved throughout America.

Beer, barbecue and homemade signs: That is why I am optimistic about our future.

Jackie Gingrich Cushman founded and is chairman of the board of the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation.