What is The United States of America? Still a grand experiment? A melting pot, destined to produce either the world's best stew, or to boil over in disaster? Is she the land of the free and the home of the brave? Or is she a land whose core values have been undermined by 45 years of governmental handouts, whose population now expects to be given that which has not been earned, who exclaim wildly to penalize those who built the world's greatest economic engine, thus effectively killing the goose that laid the golden eggs?
For 233 years America has been a haven for the human spirit: a place which holds as self-evident truth the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yet America is a nation of contradictions, for even as we cherish the right to life our federal government champions abortion; as we yearn to breathe free, the size of our federal government continues to burgeon and our tax loads increase; we pursue happiness by majority rule yet are increasingly hamstrung by legalities overly concerned with protecting minority rights.
So, as we celebrate America's birth, I ask what does America mean to you? This is what she means to me.
First, America is of, by and for the people. She's conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal in the eyes of God and equal under the law as determined by the Constitution penned by our founding fathers.
America is a group of men in Philadelphia, pledging to each other their lives and fortunes and forging a new nation. She is the Boston Tea Party, the Minutemen and Paul Revere's ride. She is George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams. She is a dreadful winter in Valley Forge, Boston's Bunker Hill and Georgia's Clark's Hill.
America is Yorktown, Jamestown, Savannah and Charleston. She is Dolly Madison running out the back door of the White House saving Washington's portrait as the British sailed up the canals in the city bearing his name. She is Francis Scott Key penning the "Star Spangled Banner" and she's John Paul Jones defiant bark: "Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!"
America is the Constitution and the "Lady Lex." She's the Yorktown, Hornet, Enterprise and Ray Spruance at Midway. She's Joshua Chamberlain and the Maine boys saving McClellan's left flank at Gettysburg. At the same time she's Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, every bit as much as she's the Alamo, Little Big Horn, the Cherokee Nation's "Trail of Tears," Ulysses S. Grant and the Appomattox Courthouse.
America is the Louisiana Purchase, "Seward's Folly," the Dred Scott decision, and the Emancipation Proclamation. She's "Remember the Maine" and the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill.
America is "Walk softly, but carry a big stick." She's gunboat diplomacy, the building of the Panama Canal and a Georgia boy named Crawford Long developing anesthesia. America is outdoorsman John Muir coercing Teddy Roosevelt into seeing the Grand Canyon and subsequently establishing our national parks system.
America is a shy, penitent, conscientious objector named Alvin York, convinced by his pastor that to defend freedom is God's work, single-handedly capturing more than 600 German troops in World War I. She is countless merchant marine seamen sleeping eternally in the sea they loved as Hitler's U-boats fed on their efforts to keep freedom alive in Europe.
America is a group of lifelong friends from Bedford, Va., stepping off a Higgins boat on Omaha Beach on D-Day, never to see "the peaks of Otter" again. She is Iwo Jima, where "uncommon valor was a common virtue." America is the Mighty 8th Air Force and she's the Tuskegee Airmen, who never lost a single bomber they escorted in their red-tailed P-51's.
America is Paul Tibbets and the crew of Enola Gay introducing the atomic age to Japan with a vengeance birthed on a peaceful Dec. 7, 1941, Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor.
America is FDR's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," Ernie Pyle, a band of brothers from the 101st "Screaming Eagles," a general named Patton, and an admiral named Nimitz.
America is Georgia's Ray Davis saving everybody in Korea at Chosin Reservoir; she's Douglas MacArthur's "old soldiers never die, they just fade away" before Congress after being relieved of command for trying to win the first war fought by UN rules, and his less-known, "In war, there is no substitute for victory."
America is 60,000 names on a polished black marble wall in Washington, D.C., and countless others who fought in the Vietnam War and who can never forget it.
She's the twisted rubble of New York City's Twin Towers, the scorched outer walls of the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania where everyday Americans simply said, "Let's roll."
America is the extraction of Noriega, the rescue mission to the Dominican, "Blackhawk Down" in Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. She's SEALS, snipers and the National Guard.
America is also "that's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." She's Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin and Mike Collins. And she's a beautiful day in January 1986, and a shuttle named "Challenger."
America is "the Bear" in a hound's-tooth hat in Tuscaloosa, Tom Landry in Dallas and Eddie Robinson at Grambling. She's Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Johnny Unitas, a Georgia boy named Herschel and "the immaculate reception" by Franco Harris.
America is baseball, hot dogs, "the Babe," Jackie Robinson and the "say hey" kid. She's a tongue-tied kid from Washington, Ga. - Ernie Harwell - completing a 60-year broadcasting career with 42 of them behind the microphone for the Detroit Tigers being inducted into Cooperstown.
America is John Wooden winning 10 NCAA basketball titles at UCLA, Pat Summit reigning supreme at Tennessee, and Kansas retiring Wilt Chamberlain's jersey in the Phog Allen Fieldhouse from a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
America is Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." From San Francisco's Chinatown to New York City's Bowery, she is Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Bette Midler. She's rock ‘n roll, country, rhythm & blues, gospel and New Orleans jazz. She's shaped-note Appalachian folk tunes and bluegrass, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, "The Grand Ole Opry" and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
America is the land of opportunity for those trying to make the most of the limited time we humans have on this planet. She's the legacy of the bravest of them all, those who left everything they knew behind and sailed unknown seas to build a better world for themselves, their children, and for you and me.
In the end, we owe everything we have to those who went before us, whose vision gave us the greatest nation the world has ever seen - and likely ever will see.
For me, America is found in the last verse of our National Anthem, the one we should sing instead of the first.
"Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand between their loved homes and the war's desolation! Blest with victory and peace may the Heav'n rescued land praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto ‘In God is our trust!' And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"
Amen. And verily I say again, amen.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.