Remembering American Exceptionalism on Independence Day

NGS Picture ID:394287It was 238 years ago today that 56 men pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” for the freedom of a new nation, signing a document that might have been their death sentence, the Declaration of Independence.

Their act of courage, like that of the patriots at Concord a year earlier, reverberated around the world. Their words did, too, stating the cause of the Revolution (and of many revolutions to follow) with a clarity that no one has ever matched.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they wrote: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

With these words on that hot summer day in Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers changed the course of human history. The United States became the first country on earth to be established on fundamental principles of freedom. And for more than two centuries, our nation has continued to be defined by these big ideas. They are the basis of our system of government, the subject of our political debates, and at the heart of what makes America exceptional.

Most Americans still understand these timeless ideals. In 2010, a Gallup survey asked respondents, “Because of the United States’ history and its Constitution, do you think the U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?” 80 percent of all Americans affirmed their belief in America as an exceptional nation, including 91 percent of Republicans, 77 percent of Independents, and 73 percent of Democrats.

Unfortunately, we are failing to pass on our appreciation for America to the next generation of Americans. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 34 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 say they believe America is the greatest country in the world.

The problem begins in our schools. Our students are failing to learn American history–and without understanding our country’s past, they can’t possibly understand what makes America an exceptional nation.

For two generations now, we have taught our children revisionist or politically correct history–like the strange idea that our Founding Fathers risked their lives out of greed or self-interest. As a result of this failure to teach the truth about our history, we are beginning to see our nation’s memory of the past slip away–especially the values and principles for which our founders actually fought.

Recent results of a Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress survey suggest how great a challenge we face in correcting this problem. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.

Only one in three fourth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this week.  Less than half understand why George Washington was an important leader in American history.  And most fourth-graders don’t know why the Pilgrims left England.

These are alarming findings. It seems we are doing a poor job of helping the next generation understand both our amazing history and the great privilege of being American.

Those of us who are proud of our country and committed to passing on the lessons of its past must find creative ways to tell the American story.

Children’s books can be a good way to introduce young people to American history.  As the author of three children’s history books (including my most recent, Yankee Doodle Dandy, about the American Revolution), I have visited classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time traveling pachyderm, with four to eight year olds. Most young people I meet are eager to learn and are excited to discover our nation’s pivotal moments.

Interactive online courses, television programs like Liberty’s Kids, and educational video games like Oregon Trail can also teach critical history lessons.  And of course, visits to historic sites like George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon or Independence Hall in Philadelphia are wonderful ways to inspire a love for American history.

This Independence Day, take a moment to appreciate the courage and sacrifice of those who signed the Declaration of Independence–the youngest just 26 years old. And then, take the opportunity to share with the young Americans in your life the meaning of that extraordinary document.

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  • Ellen_L

    Good article. I would only comment that it is in the rational self-interest of men and women to fight for their liberty. There is nothing wrong with self interest. The good is what is allows people to live well which is what rational self interest is about. It is that recognition that helps to make this country both moral and prosperous. It is by posing a false choice between the moral and self interest that socialists hope to make people give up their rights in favor of being kind. The truth is that liberty, personal prosperity, morality, and the resources to be kind are naturally compatible.

    • Jason P

      Yes, I noticed Gingrich accepts a false dichotomy between being principled and self-interest (or in Jefferson’s words “the pursuit of happiness.”) Thanks for pointing that out. I’m sure we read the same sources. Happy 4th!

      • Ellen_L

        She is not alone. This is a common error or I would not have pointed it out. It is also a fundamental question of ethics underlying many issues. Btw the more I hear and see of Mrs Gingrich the better I like her. And I am still sorry Newt Gingrich was not nominated and elected – the country and the world would be better off. I do not agree with him or her on everything but they go far in the direction we need to go and seem to have a better idea of how to get there than anyone else I have heard.
        Care to mention some of your sources?

    • Edward


      If “anti-racists” are so unconcerned with race, how come they only have a
      problem with White Countries, White Cities, White Neighborhoods, White
      Workplaces, White schools?

      I’ve never seen any “anti-racist” complain that any place is too brown and it has to become LESS brown to combat racism.

      Who do they think they are kidding?

      “Multiculturalism” = White GeNOcide

      Anti-Racist is a code for anti-White.

      • Ellen_L

        It sounds like you are a white racist complaining about brown ones. Why take the other side of a bad mistake? Racism is stupid no matter which side of it you propose. Of course, one has the right to be stupid but so do the others. The alternative is not multi culturalism vs white racism – it is racism vs individualism.

    • jimbojamesiv

      There’s a lot wrong with a blanket statement like there’s nothing wrong with self-interest.

      • Ellen_L

        Depends on what you mean by self-interest. If you mean hedonism or indulgence in whims, yes, that makes little sense. But if you mean rational interest in what is good for you, that is something else. Rational self interest requires liberty and other people to trade with to achieve values that neither could have done alone. Self interest is not mindless grabbing of whatever comes one’s way – it is purposeful action aiming at win-win situations without the sacrifice of anyone.

        • jimbojamesiv

          What a bunch of malarkey.

          • Ellen_L

            You are welcomed to your opinion. We disagree. I have been clear enough so you know what I think. I won’t continue a pointless argument with you, especially since you give no reasoning.

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  • ApolloSpeaks


    Click for a new, unusual July 4th look at this histiorical phenomenon.

    • Ellen_L

      NO! it was Thomas Jefferson and John Addams. Monroe was younger. Jefferson and Addams held out for the 50th anniversary of the Declaration they both worked on. And Addams mentioned at the last that Jefferson lived but he was wrong by a few hours. The story of these two very different friends and sometimes opponents is remarkable and interesting. They were both brilliant and important thinkers.

      • ApolloSpeaks

        If you had first read my blog you wouldn’t have posted your comment. I never said all three died on the same July 4th day.

        • Ellen_L

          Sorry, I see now that Monroe also died on the Fourth. It is still worth mentioning Adams (I had misspelled his name above) which is often commented on. Thanks for pointing Monroe out too. I did not know about him.
          Sorry there is so much to read that I can’t cover even a small part of it all so I sometimes make mistakes. I stand corrected.

  • jimbojamesiv

    I’m guessing Calista Gingrich just can’t see through the facade? Apparently some people are not capable of seeing through the lies for one reason or another. My understanding is that humans can’t be helped at this point. There’s no getting through to the vast majority of people. I’ve said for years and years that not only are we doomed but we’re determined to destroy Earth in the process–some sort of narcissistic fit–and people can and will only see what they look for. I guess it’s impossible for it to be otherwise, so when the vast majority of people have no capacity or willingness to acknowledge they have no idea what they’re talking about, let alone doing, makes the entire exercise moot.

  • charles simmonds

    is American exceptionalism such a good idea…after Iraq and Afghanistan, the jury is very much out.

  • DaCoachK

    Young people today could care less about the Declaration of Independence.

    They only care about the free stuff government can give. They are like many people in a communist country, in that they don’t want to compete and are willing to settle for just the basics, as long as it doesn’t require any exertion on their parts.