Image: McCain
Lm Otero  /  AP
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to the National Sheriffs' Association in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 1, 2008.
By PARADE Magazine
updated 7/1/2008 1:08:06 PM ET 2008-07-01T17:08:06

Two of our greatest statesmen, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, took their last breaths on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after they presented America with our Declaration of Independence. They had been fellow revolutionaries, the closest of comrades, who went on to become bitter political rivals.

Then, as the new era of the 1800s dawned, they reconciled, reminded of their old friendship and the momentous history they had made together. “Who shall write the history of the American revolution?” Adams asked Jefferson in one of the 158 letters they exchanged after they’d rediscovered their bonds. “Nobody,” responded Jefferson, suggesting that while writers could understand the facts, they might never grasp the sacrifices.

We cannot know for certain, of course, if any later historian ever did succeed in writing a history of our revolution that would have impressed two of the greatest authors of the event. But more important to Adams and Jefferson was the question of whether future generations would prove worthy of the sacrifices our Founders had made to create this Republic.

America’s many accomplishments in the 182 years that have passed since their deaths, our rise as the most powerful and prosperous nation in history, would have, perhaps, exceeded their expectations. But would they still see in the spirit of our own age the same devotion to the ideals of our revolution? Would they find that love of country was just as strong in the hearts of today’s Americans?

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I believe they would. Patriotism is deeper than its symbolic expressions, than sentiments about place and kinship that move us to hold our hands over our hearts during the national anthem. It is putting the country first, before party or personal ambition, before anything. It is the willing acceptance of Americans, both those whose roots here extend back over gener-ations and those who arrived only yesterday, to try to make a nation in which all people share in the promise and responsibilities of freedom.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to veterans, talking to them, and also serving with them when we were young and at war. After their tours end, these soldiers, sailors, aviators, and Marines almost always return to the hard times, times of pain, suffering, loss, violence, and fear. They remember where they risked everything, absolutely everything, for the country that sent them there. It gives their lives special meaning.

And it is the sacrifices of so many Americans, at home and abroad, in times of peace and times of war, that give meaning to all of us. We are blessed to be Americans, and blessed that so many of us have so often believed in a cause far greater than self-interest, far greater than ourselves. It is this belief that has sustained me as well, from a combat aircraft to a Vietnamese prison cell to the Senate floor or the campaign trail.   

Today, politics is derided for its self-interest, combativeness, duplicity, and triviality. But such failings are not unique to our age. Both Adams and Jefferson lamented them in their own time.  But that’s the great beauty of our form of government, which they helped to create; it accounts for the vices of human nature as much as it hopes for our virtues. This blessed country remains a place of limitless horizons, a country where ideals, where a love of liberty and self-reliance still check the excesses of both government and man.   

In return, the gift we can give back to our country is a patriotism that requires us to be good citizens in public office or in the community spaces where government is absent. We should, by all means, argue with each other, as did Adams and Jefferson, about the policies of government and the history we hope to make tomorrow.

But it should be an argument among friends, who agree more than they disagree, each of us united in a cause larger than our individual interests, honestly debating the best means to serve that cause, and intent on finding some common ground upon which to overcome together the many challenges before us. To love one’s country is to love one’s countrymen. And if we are to replicate the spirit of our founding age, if we are to be genuine patriots, we must remember also that we are patriots because we love the countrymen we will never know, who will be born after we are gone.

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