My Fellow Americans,
Thank you for joining me here this evening to celebrate the creation of this nation that we all love. We stand together tonight beneath the presence of four of our former leaders in the celebration of our nation and our history.
And that is how we Americans like to view the history of our nation, monumental, larger than life, and as permanent as a mountain. That collection of beliefs is part of what shapes the American myth.
Monuments, as grand as they might be only relate a fragment of the complexity of the humanity and events that they attempt to capture.
We call these presidents hewn into the stone behind me ‘great men’ and we hail them, preserve them in stone as the shapers of our nation.
They did that, among many other roles they played in their lives. But, this is how we choose to remember them. All of them, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, emerged from riot, rebellion, and war to create this nation, to hold it together, and to heal our republic.
They are not great men because they conquered, or won. But, because they were gracious in victory. Punishment is the hallmark of a tyrant. Grace is the hallmark of a ‘great man’.
We are a nation born in rebellion. That fact has informed the myth of America that we all carry.
The America we celebrate today was only achieved by disparate groups working together with one another toward a common goal. And in those struggles, we embraced one another and our allies. Those nations of men and women who shared our values and our hope of independence.
Without the help of France, America might never have emerged from the colonies.
LaFayette, our favorite fighting Frenchman, to borrow a line from Mr. Miranda’s “Hamilton” is only one of the first of a long line of great people who have shaped America by giving of themselves. Sometimes, even to the cost of their own lives.
Those who have fought and died for this nation create a line through history from the Revolution to the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, and the global conflicts of WWI and WWII.
To take a page from the annals of WWII, we know our ally’s names. Churchill, Montgomery of Britain. DeGaulle. Added to those are the scores of nameless patriots who formed the Resistance movements across Europe.
Together, as allies, we fought to preserve freedom against the horror and brutality of the Nazi regime.
That is a fact. It is history, not myth.
For there is a difference between myth and history.
Myth makes us feel better, it justifies and validates our actions. But myth is something removed from reality, which we create by picking and choosing from history. We choose from the facts of the past what we find important or meaningful. And, it is the nature of myth to overlook or to ignore that which does not fit or complement the narrative.
And myth, while it persists through the generations, is malleable. Each new group of children faces a world different from that of their parents. And they add to the myth with what they know, and what they find important.
Who would we choose to memorialize today?
John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Sitting Bull.
The mythology of our nation grows and changes, even as we do. The Great Myth of America is not captured in stone. It is constantly evolving as we change as a nation.
History, while historians may re-interpret them, history is based on facts. And the full story of history is unafraid to look at not only the successes, the victories – but it also embraces the facts which today might seem unpalatable. Or which we might not agree with. History includes our failures and our near misses.
For example, many Americans have the idea that the United States stepped into WWII and stopped it.
This view – which is blurred at the edges and seen through a rosy filter, is an attractive and comforting myth of our own prowess and strength.
If asked who our allies were you would hear the answers – Churchill’s England, DeGaulle’s France.
How many will choose to remember that Stalin’s Soviet Union was also our ally?
That is history. That is fact.
And that is only one example of how myth differs from history.
Myth looks through a lens that softens the edges. That selects carefully what it will see.
History is clear-eyed. It recognizes that our nation is capable of great things and that we also carry the legacy of our imperfect past.
Myth proclaims us a paragon, offering stories, analogies, and yes, the occasional fact.
But history extends its roots down into fact and is not afraid to hold up a mirror that shows us our errors. History challenges us to do better.
Blindly accepting myth, without evaluating what historical facts it offers, is building a castle in the air. Without foundations, one puff of wind will disperse it into nothingness.
The myth that we as Americans hold close to our hearts is of a nation of freedom, of fairness, of grit, of opportunity, of tolerance and determination.
It is the belief that we are the shining beacon on the hill.
It is a worthy ambition.
To achieve that ideal we must build a foundation rooted in the no-nonsense facts of reality. We must not only speak of those ideals, but each of us must also embody them.
So, on this July 4th, when our nation feels fragmented, isolated, and under attack by disease, falsity, narrow mindedness, and fear. I would remind you of the qualities that when they are held together by the citizens of this nation: tolerance, fairness, honesty, innovation, and determination –
That is when America is at its best.
That is when, as a nation, America is great.