America is an old country. Most of the nations of this world came into existence, in their present form, after the Second World War. France is on its fifth Republic; the People's Republic of China has been around for fewer than 60 years.
But the United States of America declared its independence 231 years ago today; some form of Congress has been sitting since 1774; the Constitution has been in force since 1789. San Marino is the only other country that can claim such continuity of government.
And yet, on this Independence Day, Americans continue to embrace the myth that theirs is a new country, based on a new idea, an experiment in liberty. Consider, as evidence, The Citizen's Almanac, a booklet given to immigrant Americans on attaining citizenship. The latest addition was published earlier this year.
"Today you are a citizen of the United States of America," the introduction proudly declares, "becoming 'a peer of kings' as President Calvin Coolidge once said," in a country that is "a beacon of hope and freedom to the world ...
"May you find fulfillment and success in all your endeavors as a citizen of this great Nation."
Compare with the stirring words of A Look at Canada, which is given to applicants for Canadian citizenship.
"Congratulations!" it begins. "It took courage to decide to move to a new country. Your decision to become a Canadian citizen is another big step ...
"Canada has a long tradition of welcoming newcomers because they increase the diversity and richness of Canadian society. Canadians are proud of the peaceful and tolerant society they have built ...
"Canadian values include freedom, respect for cultural differences and a commitment to social justice. We are proud of the fact that we are a peaceful nation. In fact, Canadians act as peacekeepers in many countries around the world."
Really, the difference between the two nations is all there. Nothing more need be said. But there are a few more things to be said about The Citizen's Almanac, because it contains some surprises.
The document describes the landmark anthems, symbols, documents and orations that define American civic life. Of course, The Star-Spangled Banner and the Gettysburg Address are included. But who would have thought that Walt Whitman's I Hear America Singing would make it in?
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
... at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Imagine a new arrival memorizing those lines.
It's interesting to note that Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech before the Berlin Wall has made it into the category of epic presidential addresses. And the document provided a fascinating piece of information: On July 30, 1956, Dwight Eisenhower approved a joint resolution of Congress that declared the U.S. motto would be "In God We Trust."
What a landmark that was. The founding fathers were, for the most part, enlightened skeptics, holding to little or no religious belief, determined to establish their republic on rational, humanist principles.
But America has become steadily more, rather than less, religious over time. In recent debates, both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have been compelled to describe what God means to them when a sharp "my faith is a personal matter" is the proper response to such an impertinent question.
It can't be helped. Even Thomas Jefferson couldn't escape the core myth of America's divine right. As the almanac reminds the new citizen: "Upon taking the Oath of Allegiance, you claimed for yourself the God-given unalienable rights that the Declaration of Independence sets forth as a natural right to all people."
Folks here still say such things without irony. Post-modern relativism has made no dent in the American political psyche.
"With open arms we welcome you," the almanac declares, and America remains an open and welcoming society, even if much of its immigration these days is illegal.
Failed wars and failed administrations come and go. But the American myth is forever young.