When a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson sat down in a rented room in the heat of the Philadelphia summer to write the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution had already begun. On one level, Jefferson was simply putting the reasons for independence into words. The first shot had been fired over a year earlier, after decades of increasingly tyrannical British abuses of the American colonists had culminated in open revolt in Massachusetts.

Even so, it was not yet clear whether all 13 colonies would support a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain. They had to be persuaded.

After 17 days of writing and rewriting, struggling to find the right words, Jefferson presented his work to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. He then submitted a draft to the Continental Congress on July 1, which officially adopted it three days later.

Each year on the Fourth of July, we celebrate this moment – the moment that we formally declared our independence from the British Empire and began to see ourselves as our own nation.

I love Independence Day celebrations in Nebraska. Like many people, my family often spends the day enjoying the great outdoors before hosting friends and neighbors for a barbecue.

But the Fourth of July is about more than food and fireworks or parades and pancake feeds. It is an opportunity to reflect on the nearly two and a half centuries of our nation’s history and remember what it means to be an American.

For me, America is an idea. It is the idea, as Jefferson wrote, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Belief in this creed is what unites us as Americans. And while we may not always live up to this idea, we can never stop trying. We should count ourselves fortunate to live in the greatest nation on earth, where the notion of equal justice for all first came into the world.

I was touched to see that on June 22, 36 people became American citizens in the first naturalization ceremony held in Lincoln since February. This diverse group of people renounced their loyalty to their former countries and took an oath of allegiance to the United States. Family and friends in attendance brought red, white, and blue balloons, along with homemade banners and other patriotic displays.

These 36 people, despite being citizens for only a few weeks, are just as American as you or me. And these new citizens chose to be Americans. They weren’t born here, but they saw America for what it is: a shining city upon a hill, where our institutions, though they sometimes falter, strive to honor Jefferson’s promise of God-given rights and equal treatment before the law for all citizens.

We are not perfect, but neither can we forget our founding purpose. The United States was the first nation in history to set this high standard for ourselves, and we remain its best example. This Independence Day, as our country wrestles with both a pandemic and national unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, I urge you to remember that we remain, as President Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War, “the last best hope of earth.”

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.

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