Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

These words appeared, in this order, in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Philosophers and self-made men recognized a radical truth: that “all men are created equal” and, as such, are entitled to these “unalienable rights” – the right to work, live and worship as they choose. Furthermore, these simple rights were viewed by our Founders as the natural inheritance of every person on Earth. This simple description of individual freedom has guided and inspired our nation ever since it was penned in 1776.

The Journey Begins

In August 1620 a ship carrying 120 passengers launched from Southampton, England for the New World. Seeking religious, economic and individual freedoms, the passengers of the Mayflower and other ships like her set out to establish what would later become the United States of America. The settlers spent a rough New England winter aboard ship and eventually landed in Plymouth, MA in April 1621. Their determination and perseverance against overwhelming odds was a testament to the budding strength of the American spirit.

The Call

When the American Colonies could no longer live under the iron-fisted rule of the British king they joined together and declared their independence. Commissioned in 1751 for the Philadelphia State House, the 2000-pound bell became the most famous symbol of the Revolution. It rang to gather citizens for a reading of the Declaration of Independence, to announce the Continental Congress and to report on the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In the 1830s anti-slavery Abolitionists adopted it as their symbol and gave it the name Liberty Bell. It’s rugged, well-worn appearance and deep crack remind us of the sacrifices made for American freedom.

A Foundation

Adopted in 1787 the Constitution, along with the first ten amendments known collectively as the Bill of Rights, became the supreme law of the United States, setting out the legal framework for the government and guaranteeing the rights of individual citizens. As the preamble states, the Constitution was created by and for “we the people.” It embodied a then radical notion: that the people of a country are sovereign and that legitimate governments must be based on the will of the people.

From Sea To Shining Sea

Emboldened by the idea that America was an opportunity to create a new and better society, the fledgling nation set out to expand her influence to her natural borders: north, south and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Settling new territories, annexing and purchasing huge tracts of land, America grew in size, stature and maturity. This time didn’t come without conflict, as new settlements displaced Native American tribes. Between 1790 and 1850 the population of the United States expanded from 3 to 23 million as east coast residents and immigrants bundled all their belongings into covered wagons and set out to build a new life on the frontier.

A Fractured Union

From 1861 to 1865, the country endured a civil war that claimed more than 620,000 soldiers. Seven southern states known as the Confederacy seceded from the Union over the role of the federal government in state affairs, particularly slavery. President Lincoln, swearing to preserve the Union at all costs, ordered the US military to put down the rebellion. In 1863 partly to weaken southern morale, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant of the Union. The war was over and what emerged was the ideal that despite our differences, there is more to unite us than divide us.

A Land of Opportunity

Extravagant tales of a land where the “streets are paved with gold,” along with the real promise of freedom, led to mass emigration from Europe to the United States in the 19th century. By the 1840s these “huddled masses yearning to be free” reached one million entering the US per year. In the first years of the 20th century immigration peaked with more than 8.7 million people entering the country in a single year. For those who came via New York’s Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French government in 1881, welcomed them to a new life of freedom and opportunity.

Lighting The Path

The US led the world in inventions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By mid 19th century, railroads wove together a far-flung nation. The light bulb, perfected by Thomas Edison in 1880, paved the way for inventions including recorded music and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. In 1903 the Wright brothers took to the skies for 120 seconds in their Wright Flier and ushered in the age of aviation. In 1913 Henry Ford installed the first industrial assembly line for automobiles. America was literally on the move and lighting the way to the future.

The Crash

On Oct. 29, 1929 the Roaring 20s came to a calamitous end when the stock market shed 12 percent of its value in a single day. The crash was the beginning of what became known as the Great Depression. US unemployment peaked at 25 percent as people everywhere struggled to find work, food and shelter. The government tried various approaches to alleviate the pain of the financial crisis. Under the umbrella of the New Deal, President Roosevelt put into place many economic reforms and government programs. The economy began to recover in the late 1930s, but didn’t truly take off again until the beginning of World War II.

In Defense Of Freedom

From 1939 through 1945 war raged throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Germany under the Nazi regime, Italy under Fascism and Imperial Japan aggressively sought expansion through conquest and suppression. America entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese bombed the US Naval Station at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Americans flocked to enlist, seeing the war as a showdown between freedom and tyranny. The end of WWII saw the United States promoting democracy and the Soviet Union seeking to expand communism around the world. The Cold War had begun.

The Final Frontier

In 1962 with the US lagging behind the Soviet Union in the “space race,” President John F. Kennedy declared “that we shall not see space governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” He challenged America to put a man on the moon and bring him home safely before the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 accomplished that mission. Neil Armstrong, the first person to step foot on the moon, planted an American flag on the lunar surface where it remains to this day. Successful space travel was a triumph of American ingenuity, technical ability, creativity and courage.

A New Revolution

The time after World War II was one of many transformations in the United States. Under a shadow cast by an arms race with the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War, political and social unrest at home, American voices gave birth to a counter-culture. Advocates for peace, equality and freedom of personal expression joined together to challenge institutions of government, business and “the establishment.” Vigorous debate and free expression have allowed America to reinvent itself while reinforcing the promise of freedom. The struggle to expand civil rights for all continues.

An Assault On Freedom

On Sept. 11, 2001, four commercial airplanes were hijacked by 19 members of a militant Islamist terrorist organization. Two planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; another plane slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC; and a fourth plane crashed in an empty field outside Shanksville, PA. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed. Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups claimed to seek the destruction of the United States. Rather than destroy the nation, the 9/11 attacks brought citizens together in a common determination to protect the American way of life.