Who Do We Think We Are?

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

In just eight years, the United States of America will commemorate its 250th anniversary. On July 4, 2026, the document written by Mr. Jefferson in which he coined the immortal phrase “all men are created equal” will be two and one half centuries old.

It will be a time of grand celebrations, as it should be. The United States is now the longest surviving republic with a written constitution in the history of the world. The Revolution launched with the Declaration of 1776 set the world on fire and spread the flames of liberty far beyond the shores of North America. “All men are created equal” has been a rallying cry and an inspiration for oppressed people everywhere.

But even as we celebrate, I strongly suspect there will be a lot of soul searching, too.

Given the dramatic demographic, economic, and social changes we are currently experiencing—and which by then will be even more pronounced—the central question of our 250th anniversary will no doubt be twofold: “Who is an American?” and “What do we still stand for?”

Are we still that nation founded 250 years ago upon the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, a country made up of diverse people drawn irresistibly from the four corners of the world by economic opportunity and religious and political liberty, and bound to each other by the ideals of freedom and equality for all? Or has the “land of the free and the home of the brave” given into its fears and morphed into something else, something unrecognizable even to ourselves?

These are not new questions. They have been asked by nearly every generation, especially those which have struggled with dramatic change. Wars, immigration, divisive politics, and economic crisis have always made many Americans fear the country was moving in the wrong direction.

Public history institutions like the Georgia Historical Society have a responsibility to help our fellow citizens find the answers to these questions. Through our educational programs and other activities we offer the proper venue for people of good will to discuss and explore difficult issues within the context of history, and to find new meaning and even inspiration in the past—and perhaps even hope for the future.

History demonstrates that we can survive difficult wars and challenging leadership; we can absorb and assimilate new comers; the economy does rebound. Despite all that has been thrown at us over nearly 250 turbulent years, the United States and its Constitution have endured.

So as we begin the countdown to our big birthday, the Georgia Historical Society will be there to help lead the conversation about who we are as nation, where we have been, and where we are going. The 2019 Georgia History Festival’s theme of “Liberty and Justice for All” is a first step toward launching that national conversation.

In so doing, we can help our country move confidently into the future with a renewed understanding of, and commitment to, the lofty and timeless values and ideals that unite us as Americans, values and ideals that are elastic enough to meet new challenges and that are greater than any of the things that divide us.