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1776 remains a work in progress

Among the many things that make the United States special is the fact that we have understood our nation, from the very beginning, to be an experiment.

We are not just a location or an ethnic group; we are a people engaged, together, in a project.

It is generally agreed that Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg most aptly sum up the meaning of the American project: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Lincoln called the project “unfinished work,” and it remains so as we celebrate the Fourth of July this week, 232 years the founding.

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Without question, our republic has had successes that earlier societies could hardly dream of - ending slavery, enfranchising all citizens, assisting scores of other nations to achieve or preserve their own democracies, often in the face of powerful and ruthless enemies.

But the stunning successes of this American experiment are in no way a guarantee.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a sense of vulnerability in the United States. No similar sense of peril had been felt in our nation for many years.

Perhaps we had even come to feel indestructible.

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But now, having fought two wars - one bitterly divisive - and having faced a host of fundamental questions about the meaning of the Constitution and the obligations of American values in wartime, our sense of vulnerability has, if anything, broadened.

We have come to feel how fragile this American project can be.

It is not just the usual liberal/conservative invective; the nation is truly wrestling with fundamental questions about basic aspects of our national identity.

Maybe we understand better today than we did just a few years ago what Lincoln meant by “unfinished work.” Each generation has the burden of making this democracy work and of keeping it true to its founding spirit.

The framers of the Constitution could not solve the problems of democracy for us. Rather, they gave us a framework within which we, too, could carry on the work of creating a nation, if we have the spirit for it.

With great pride, they spoke of the Spirit of 1776.

That year, that July, a new thing was ready to be born (as it says on the one dollar bill, a novus ordo secolorum, a new order for the ages) and, fortunately, there were people with the courage to bring that new thing to life.

It is, of course, an election year. And these are, without question, times of testing.

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It is an especially good year for remembering what a gift the Founders bequeathed us. Together, both left and right, we share in a great project.

As Lincoln would say, it is time, especially this Fourth of July, to “take increased devotion” to the still unquenched Spirit of 1776.