When I drive a few minutes north with my dog to wander around the fields and woods outside Gettysburg, there is a kind of moment of change between Maryland and Pennsylvania. You’ll see rising crop fields and sun-warmed meadows on either side of that border; and swift, quiet creeks and soft clouds in the broad summer sky sweep past, unaware of any points of transition between one horizon and the next. But there is something different, unmistakable, felt in the heart between two single steps.
When one speaks of Germans or the French, we think of people from Germany or France – people from a particular place. But when one speaks of Americans, one doesn’t only think of a place – one also thinks about ideals. It seems a paradox: we are defined by what we believe rather than where we live; yet, we love where we live as much as we love what we believe.
This is because what Americans believe has always been synonymous with our home. Our nation was not established based on the competition of kings, royal family disputes, or on cultural differences, but on self-evident truths about human life and freedom naturally inherent through God. These categorical ideas, these absolute values, were the core of our founding documents and remain the foundation of our way of life.
Among the nations of the world, the United States is home for us. And among all the places across the United States, one place more than others is home for each of us. The writer George Eliot considered such a home to be a place unique against all future experiences.
When we consider our American experience in conjunction with our very human love of home, the reality is clear. We Americans know where home is, but we also know what home means. Our American ideals take root in us and the way we live our lives just as we take root in the land. There, we find meaning, purpose, and belonging. We reach out to God and pursue our dreams, whatever they may be.
Daniel Webster, recounting his childhood, said the North Star was closer to his family’s homestead than were his New England neighbors. It was tough and rural, but it was beautiful, and it was home. Webster’s father, hard-working and rooted to that land, was determined that his son should do better in America than he ever had. One can imagine that Webster wasn’t just making a point about the isolation when he referenced the North Star, but was commenting on setting out to follow a course.
Webster would ultimately, from that distant and secluded land, rise to enter the United States Senate where he would be central to the most important and dramatic events of the Antebellum era. That anything was possible in America was symbolized by Webster’s ascent, much like a star in the night sky, and Americans saw this clearly.
It didn’t matter where you lived in America – the American opportunity was there.
When French diplomat and writer Alexis De Tocqueville visited the young United States in the 1830s, he saw a people rising in pursuit of opportunity. In his travels, he noted that America functioned community by community, each unique in some way, and this remains true to this day. Though unique, each community is still bound together by a common thread – our American way.
It is that way for which we are renowned throughout the world, our seeking and doing of good; and it is that which distinguishes us from the vast epoch and tumult of history. Each year, on Independence Day, we reflect on our nation, our history, and our character. We have much to be proud of, to celebrate, and to be inspired by. We have limitless potential that requires only the taking of the chance – and Americans have never let the morning pass unrisked.
From dew-draped farm fields to smoke-cast battlefields, from quiet country towns to massive, bustling cities, from fishing boats at sea to the floors of factories, from sacred church altars and classrooms to the warmth of our living rooms, Americans have made a thousand journeys from dreams to dreams-come-true. Each American community is, after all, as unique as the Americans who populate them.
When you travel in the United States, even if only to the next town, you’ll find those distinctions. But you’ll also find that common thread, that metaphysical and uniting American story. It lends the sense of being home when you are not actually at home.
True, the field may be the same on both sides of the border – the same plants, the same soil, the same weather – but there is a difference, too. Home is set apart, just as the United States is set apart. You’ll feel the difference between home and elsewhere, between your neighbor’s yard and your own, between Maryland and Pennsylvania, between the American way and the world.
The Fourth of July is one of those moments when Americans from every part and corner of the nation unite to celebrate not where we live, but who we are. Our home is American.