Shhh... Listen close. 

Can you hear them? Wafting over the American landscape like an echo, ghostly voices urging us to remember who we are and where we've been. 

The Voices of America's Past... 

Turn off the television. Step away from the barbecue for just a moment. Listen hard and you can still hear them; look closely, and perhaps you might even see them. 

Look, over there. Do you see him? It's George Washington, first in the hearts of his countrymen, reciting the words of his Farewell Address: "The name of 'American,' which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations..." 

And there, just down the road a piece... Isn't that Abraham Lincoln, standing before the unfinished dome of the U.S. Capitol Building, just reaching the dramatic conclusion of his Second Inaugural speech? "With malice toward none; with charity to all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in..." 

Wait... Do you hear that? Just around the next corner, a young man named Kennedy is beckoning America on to the possibility of a bright tomorrow: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." 

Stirring words, then and now. Words that help to define, each in their own unique way, the American Spirit. A spirit which first manifested itself as early as Nov. 11, 1620, when 41 pilgrims gathered to sign an agreement sanctioning a preliminary plan of government of "just and equal" laws: the Mayflower Compact. 

A century later, in 1730, that spirit moved over the land again - this time in the form of a brave printer who spoke out against injustice, and of a courageous lawyer who argued that the truth is not libelous. Together, John Peter Zenger and Andrew Hamilton dared a confrontation with arbitrary power and helped establish a key principle of American democracy - freedom of the press. 

But another 46 years would pass before the American spirit was finally given true form and substance. The work fell to a tall, red-haired scholar-architect from Virginia, who battled the heat and insects of the sultry Philadelphia summer and went without sleep for days at a time in order to create an enduring masterpiece of political philosophy. 

Its author referred to it as a "declaration of the American mind" - a logical outgrowth of the American colonial experience, joined with enlightenment and reason. It offered up an argument for revolution so forceful, so precise, that it has flashed its lightning into every corner of the globe. 

In the evening hours of July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. At that moment, a new nation was born. It was not an easy birth; some of Jefferson's fellow delegates were unhappy with some of the ideas put forth in the Declaration and refused to sign until those ideas were excised. 

Debating the wisdom of such deletions is, ultimately, pointless. Had some of Jefferson's words not been removed, there might never have been a Civil War. Then again, had they not been removed the Declaration likely would never have been adopted at all and today the United States might be remembered only as a concept that never got beyond the discussion phase. 

And there are some who would tell us today that the Jefferson's concept of "united colonies, free and independent" has still never truly come to pass. Such naysayers will surely cite the need for a civil rights movement as evidence that they didn't get it right the first time. They might point at Kent State, or Watergate, or the Oklahoma City bombing, or the O.J. Simpson verdict, or the popularity of Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann as proof that this country still has a long way to go. 

It should probably be admitted that these individuals may have a point. America isn't perfect. Our judicial system is somewhat askew. Many Americans would rather win some lottery than put in an honest day's work. Sometimes our elected officials - of all parties and in all capacities, from Washington D.C. to right here at home - forget just who it is they're working for. And, yes, there are always going to be those who hate their fellow man, and often for the most superficial of reasons. 

Let's admit it right up front: In some ways, perhaps the system is flawed. But it still WORKS, better than any other system being used on the face of this planet today. 

And while we have our problems and we occasionally come away from a particular situation feeling that there must have been a better way to have handled it, I guarantee you that somewhere on this planet right now - numerous somewheres, in fact - there's somebody wishing they had it as good as we do here in America. 

I'm not blind. I see the troubles that plague our nation. But I also see that there are solutions, if we just take the time to look for them. The fellow who said "My country, right or wrong" didn't quite have it right; my country "wrong" - if indeed it is wrong, and occasionally it is - needs my help. 

Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress left us a blueprint upon which to build those solutions. A stirring synthesis of ideas and purposed, founded upon a bedrock foundation of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." 

Tomorrow, as we enjoy our parades and our fireworks and our cookouts, let us not forget to take just a few moments to recall that this most important of American holidays is a celebration of words - simply words. But, oh, what words! Words which, after 200 years, are still vibrant and powerful and still continue to provide a direction and guidance for our nation. 

Words that still mean something important, more than two and a quarter centuries after they were first written.

(Copyright 2012 by John Allen Small)