One finds the ideas upon which the country is built in the Declaration of Independence of 1776:
”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.”
However grand and mighty these words sound, and however much they belong to the groundwork of a true democracy, they pose a number of questions to the modern consciousness. ”That all men are created equal” is a great and noble thought. This equality, in the sense of ”having equal opportunity,” is also brought into practice in America. Although the newsboy who became a millionaire is a phenomenon that now more or less belongs to former times, the number of those who have paved their own way to the very highest positions is certainly greater in America than in Europe. Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin, and who successively became a farmhand, woodchopper, boatswain, shopkeeper, lawyer, congressman and president is one of the most classic examples.
When one takes into consideration, however, that slavery was at its height at the time in which this declaration was written, nor was it to be abolished for almost a hundred years, when one further considers the manner in which the Indians have been treated and often cheated, finally to be driven back onto reservations, then one understands that this ‘equality’ has, to put it mildly, not yet reached its full development.
The three inalienable rights of ”life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are also problems. We shall return to the matter of freedom presently. The ”pursuit of happiness” immediately evokes the question of what is meant by happiness. This word unquestionably has another meaning in the United States of the 20th century than it had in Jefferson’s time which was permeated with a deeply religious element. The concept of happiness has acquired an ever greater materialistic/quantitative character, and finally became identified with success and prosperity.
This does not alter the fact that the words of the Declaration of Independence still live in the depths of the American soul, where they represent a solemn ideal.
This also applies to the words which Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. This remarkable address of only seven short paragraphs, delivered in a few moments’ time, was, strangely enough, destined to take on the significance of an acknowledgment of faith for millions of people.
The gathering at Gettysburg was for the purpose of dedicating a national military cemetery. The real speaker of the day was Edward Everett, who delivered a well-prepared detailed oration prior to Lincoln’s taking the floor. Lincoln thereupon arose, holding a couple of sheets of paper in his hand upon which he cast an occasional glance while speaking the few sentences written upon them, one of which read as follows: ”The world will little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they (the soldiers on the field of battle) did here.”
It turned out quite differently. However important the heroic deeds of the battlefield were, their memory has paled far more greatly than that of the words which Lincoln spoke that memorable afternoon. His closing words: ”That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” lived on resounding magically among the American people. Every schoolboy knows them by heart, and every American knows that this ideal, still not attained by far, shall in time be realized. In connection with this is the singular feeling of being the Chosen People, of having a mission to fulfill which not only concerns America, but the entire world, namely the mission of establishing a new world order which will embrace all countries and all peoples.
America and Americanism