There is a fire that burns in the hearts of some—an American Fire. It’s a fire of the mind that starts when certain principles and ideas are mixed together. Not every American has it, nor does every American want it—nor understand it. Yet in a few, it burns so fiercely that it startles the rest to see someone care so much.
To make American Fire, you need the three small ideas: that I am responsible for me, that you are responsible for you, and that neither of us has a right to wrong another. And you also need the really big idea that a country shouldn’t exist to enrich its leaders, but to promote and protect freedom and equality and justice and kindness. You’ll need the firm conviction that nobody is above the law—not the lawmaker, nor the executive, nor the judge. Neither the rich, nor the poor, nor the military, nor the police, nor the thug, nor the needy, nor the banker, nor the people of this skin color, nor of that one—nor anybody else—none have rights greater than those of the rest.
Also mixed into American Fire are the ideas that we all should have equal and reliable protection under the laws—and that if we don’t, we’re going to stand up and do something righteous about it. And there’s that particularly mature idea that we all owe it to ourselves—and to everybody else—to be wise and responsible about how we live out our citizen roles. And this is where it gets too radical for some—in the idea that we all share not only common rights but a common duty to see to it that this way of life is protected against neglect and hypocrisy alike—and against the tyrant and the scoundrel and the robber-baron and the banker, and yes, even against the unruly citizen trying to vote himself money from the public treasury. American Fire holds every American accountable, and it insists that rights and duty are equals, and that the one cannot long survive without the other. Anyone can love rights, but it takes a champion to love duty.
American Fire is superior to common patriotism. Stronger. Wiser. Braver. And it is certainly superior to the quicksand of party spirit—that tired and mindless counterfeit that so often serves as a cover for hypocrisy, excusing the one party’s corruption while demanding the other’s reform. American Fire cleans its own house before complaining about that of the neighbors.
When first it burned, it was in the hearts of a special people who had moved to this New World from the old one. They were not ordinary people, for what ordinary person would risk so much? No, theirs was extraordinary behavior, both in the hoping and in the daring. But their descendants would forget the convictions that had driven their ancestors. And in time, they would settle for so much less.
That first American Firestorm was overrun before it had run its full course—corrupted both by common complacency and by that sinister counterfeit to American Fire: hypocritical partisanship. While it did burn long and hot enough to gain independence in those early years, they fell short in various ways, such as in failing to resolve the stark conflict between their divine epiphany that “all men are created equal” and the wicked toleration of slavery. Rather than to fix it, they left it to fester, which is a bad trick we know all too well ourselves. Similarly, they failed to find an adequate way to run the tyrant out of office before he could corrupt the system—and the banker before he could corrupt the money. But let us not criticize them too sharply, for surely, they did more for the cause than we have yet done. Yet even after such a valiant start, they stopped short of solving that age-old challenge of government: Who will guard the guards? Or who will govern the governors? American Fire did not burn in enough hearts to overcome all these things, even in that first generation when it burned the brightest. But that was then, and this is now, and we are not them.
What’s to stop us, then, from continuing on our watch the work of freedom and justice and equality, and from taking it farther than they did at first? Could we not repair ourselves and oust the tyrant and the scoundrel from the halls of government, and make the money sound again? If anything could burn down the corruption, American Fire could! It could give us and our children and our grandchildren something better to believe in—something better to do—something better to build—something better to be.
The embers of American Fire are still found in our history books, in our Constitution, in our American lore. And the very foundations of it still burn in the Bible, right where our Founders found them so long ago. The ideas are free for the taking. But beware, lest you take it not knowing that it cleans the hearts in which it burns. It will not let them cheat either citizen or country, so long as they heed its call. It bids us all to be valiant people, to take a stand, and to defend on principle the rights—even of those we do not like.
American Fire can repair the broken foundations of liberty, equality, and justice. With it, we could guard both the guards and our own hearts as well. And having chosen such a brave course for ourselves, we could leave this world knowing that we have championed rights and duty alike—and that we’ve secured a more perfect Union of States than was handed down to us. We could do this not only for our children, and their children, but because it is, most simply, the right thing to do. American Fire is our only good hope. Nothing less will do.