In the summer of 1776, the Revolutionary War was in its second year, and the ragtag Continental Army faced long odds for success against the British. It was under these circumstances that the delegates to the Second Continental Congress not only declared independence from Great Britain, they put forward a bold statement of self-government rooted in their belief in individual freedom. The ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence would cement the American Revolution as a truly revolutionary moment in history.
In a world in which power was often concentrated in a single person, the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence committed to a very different idea. They said that all men are created equal, that our rights come from God, and that government’s power comes from the people. These ideas are the cornerstone of our country, and they continue to inspire Americans and freedom-loving people around the world more than two centuries later. The signers could hardly have imagined at that time that their new nation would one day stretch from sea to shining sea. As the country grew, the millions of Americans seeking a new life on the frontier gave Jefferson’s words in the Declaration an even greater significance.
Like many Americans, I can trace my roots to people who exemplify the idea of the pursuit of happiness. My grandfather, Nikolai, and his brother, Matthew, lived the American Dream, immigrating from Norway and finding work building the transcontinental railroad across South Dakota. They saved enough money and started a small merchandising company and, later, a hardware store in Mitchell. Like the founding fathers, these men understood that anything was possible in America.
While we celebrate our country and the freedom we enjoy, we should also take a moment to acknowledge that these freedoms have not come without sacrifice. Throughout our history, generations of Americans have left the comforts of home to fight for our country. Freedom has a special meaning to those who know what it takes to defend it. I recently had the privilege of welcoming dozens of South Dakota veterans to Washington, D.C., who were there to visit the memorials that honor their service in Korea and Vietnam. It was humbling to meet these South Dakotans and to be with them as they reflected on their service and what it has meant for our country.
On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the enduring nature of what began in Philadelphia 247 years ago. Our founding principles have been sustained by the patriotism of the American people who have fought for our country, taken risks in pursuit of a better life, and who pass our heritage of freedom on to the next generation. I’m grateful that America continues to be a beacon of hope and a bulwark for freedom.