More than most countries, America has always been as much about an idea as about a place, and the idea has always been an object of debate. This year, as we prepare to celebrate the nation's birthday, the idea of America is being contested on terrain most of us thought was in our past, with the resurgence of a racially tinged understanding of the American nation. That resurgence is marked by a disdain for human decency towards those defined as "other" that we associate with antebellum slavery or 1920s eugenicist, nativist hatreds.
The America that I love is the America of Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address drives home the liberal idea at the heart of our national experiment when he called America, "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." It is the America of Thomas Jefferson who, like us all, could not grasp the ideals he articulated in his own affairs and circumstances but who, nonetheless, articulated the liberal ideals of the American founding in ways that made the systemic slavery he could not resist a doomed affront to liberty. It is the America that welcomed, more or less, my Polish grandparents and my Irish great-great-grandparents. The America I love is decent as Jimmy Carter is decent, learned about the past as Harry Truman was learned about the past, visionary as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was visionary.