Nation's Founding Fathers changed the world.
In 1940, when she was still a struggling writer, novelist Ayn Rand made a personal sacrifice. She suspended work on what would become her first best-selling novel, "The Fountainhead," to campaign as an unpaid volunteer for the Republican candidate for president, Wendell Wilkie.
Rand was not a very impressive campaigner. She was an immigrant from Russia who spoke with a heavy Russian-Jewish accent. Once, a heckler zeroed in on this apparent weakness: "Hey, sister!" he shouted. "You're a foreigner. Where do you get off telling us real Americans how to vote?"
Rand fixed the heckler with a steely gaze and replied: "That's right. I chose to be an American. What did you do, besides being born here?" The crowd laughed and burst into applause.
I think of that story in connection with the Fourth of July, because it is the quintessential American holiday. It's the day that we celebrate our country and all that it stands for. It's also a day on which we reflect on what it means to be an American. And that's a more profound question than many of us realize.
Think about it: We Americans are not bound by a common race, ethnicity or culture. We have no monarchy and no national church. We have no end of ways in which we are different from each other. What is it that unites us as one people, one nation?
Incredibly, it is our devotion to an ideal. The English writer G.K. Chesterton once said that America is the only country ever founded on a creed. What is that creed? Look at our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Go to any swearing-in ceremony and ask any newly-minted citizen what made him or her choose to be an American. I guarantee you - no matter where that person is from, no matter what that person's race, religion or ethnic background may be - that person's answer will come straight from our Declaration of Independence.
Immigrants have always been drawn to this country by the promise of freedom and the chance to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their children. America is a nation today because of the enthusiasm with which our newcomers have embraced our creed. In effect, they have added their own signatures to the Declaration of Independence as they arrived. That is the strength of America, and that is why we are a nation today.
Some naysayers will tell you that the Declaration was nothing more than a sham. They will make much of the fact that the man who wrote it, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner, as were about a third of the other men who signed it. Furthermore, the Declaration said nothing about the equality of women.
That argument is true as far as it goes - but it doesn't go very far. It overlooks the fact that it was the Declaration that helped inspire the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and equality for women. Because once this nation was founded on the radical notion that all men are created equal, and all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there was no turning back. We could do nothing else but fulfill the promise implied in our founding document.
African-American leaders from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the Declaration in making the case for civil rights. In his speech to the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. King said, "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
It was the same with women. When the first women's rights convention to be organized by women met at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, it produced a "Declaration of Sentiments" modeled after the Declaration of Independence, and affirming that all men "and women" are created equal.
And every other group in America who for some reason or other have been relegated to something less than full citizenship have been able to point to the Declaration's commitment to civil equality and demand their full rights and responsibilities as Americans.
Our Founding Fathers knew that they were signing a revolutionary document back in 1776. But they couldn't possibly have conceived just how revolutionary it was. They could never have imagined the explosive power inherent in the ideas to which they were pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
That's why it delights me that we celebrate our national holiday with fireworks. Nothing could be more appropriate. The Declaration of Independence was the ultimate firecracker; it shook the world.
Thomas C. Stewart of Eugene is a retired trustee of the University of Oregon Foundation.