Sergeant York, the highest-grossing movie of 1941, opened in American theaters in July and was still playing after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. A biographical film starring Gary Cooper as the WWI hero Alvin York, it would receive 11 Oscar nominations and win two. Young men went directly from watching the movie in theaters to the enlistment offices, to sign up for the war that had just come to America. And the hero who inspired them to join the fight was a man of peace.

On New Year’s Day 1863, President Lincoln signed the proclamation he had promised a hundred days before. Lincoln understood better than anyone the constitutional challenges to emancipation. He took the greatest care to draft the proclamation in terms that could be defended before the highest court in the land. Then in the last weeks of his life, he “left no means unapplied” to getting the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, approved by Congress.

January 1, 1942 had been set aside by President Roosevelt as a Day of Prayer. He had good reason for doing this; it was a dark time. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor just a few weeks before. Then Hitler declared war on the United States. America was suddenly at war with the greatest military powers in Europe and in Asia. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was Roosevelt’s guest at the White House for strategic discussions. They spent a memorable, and very American, New Year’s Day together.

From August to the last week of December, as David McCullough writes, “1776 had been as dark a time as those devoted to the American Cause had ever known.” As the year ended, despite the stunning and historic victory at Trenton the day after Christmas, there was good reason to fear that Washington’s army would dissolve and with it any hopes for the American Cause. Washington pleaded with the men to stay on another month. The fate of liberty depended on them.

By summer 1776, the most powerful navy in the world was conveying the greatest British expeditionary force in history across the ocean to suppress the American rebellion. George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army seemed no match for this great force. They suffered one defeat after another. Winter was coming on. Enlistments would expire at the end of the year. On December 20, Washington wrote Congress: “10 days more will put an end to the existence of this army.”

John Wayne began life as Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. After his family made its way to L.A., and an injury sidelined him from USC football, he began working full-time as a prop man for movie studios. His natural strength, good spirit, good looks, and determination carried him through nearly a decade of B-movies before he became a star. Thirty-five years after his death, he was still listed as one of America’s five favorite movie stars; he became “indivisibly associated with America itself.”

Among the countless millions of human events postponed, rescheduled, or cancelled in the long hard year 2020, one was a gathering scheduled for an eight square mile volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean. The gathering was to be a “Reunion of Honor” commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Abigail Adams recorded that when her husband and Thomas Jefferson visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, Jefferson fell upon the ground and kissed it and John Adams cut a chip from Shakespeare’s chair. Jefferson and Adams both revered Shakespeare, as did Abigail, and they all understood how necessary it was for a free people to revere what deserves reverence. As this story shows, they also understood that true reverence needs to be complemented by good humored irreverence.

Every president since Lincoln has issued a Thanksgiving proclamation every year, but on September 25, 1789, when the U.S. House of Representatives had only been operating for about six months, not everyone was sure that Thanksgiving was a good idea.

P.G. Wodehouse was one of the best writers in the English language in the 20th century and the funniest. He wrote nearly 100 delightful books, each one of which in perfectly orchestrated sentences, can make you fall laughing out of your beach chair. He became an American citizen in 1955, wrote an autobiography titled “America, I like you.” Read anything Wodehouse. You won’t regret it.

USO stands for United Service Organizations, and it is a beautiful gem of American history and American civic life. It was created in early 1941, when America had not yet entered World War II, but could feel the day coming when it must. Since then they have been working to support our service members from enlistment to deployment and through transitioning back to their communities.

Until the election of 1860, the truths proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence had been the ground of American civic friendship, above all the central truth that all men are created equal. Fidelity to this most American idea held the country together through many divisions since 1776. The Confederate States rejected that idea. America had lost the foundation for civic peace. Ballots gave way to bullets.

The election of 1800 in America came after a decade of bitter and extreme party strife. Each side accused the other of aiming to overthrow the Constitution and preparing the way for tyranny. There was no precedent, including the experience of 1776, for resolving such differences without appealing to bullets. But ballots prevailed and power was transferred peacefully between uncompromisingly hostile political rivals for the first time in human history.

Americans are being reminded how fragile and precious an achievement it is to establish the legitimate authority of government through peaceful and free elections. But there would be no ballots without the bullets of 1776. We hold elections in America because, as the Declaration of Independence says, we think “the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed.” But what divided the American people from the British Crown and Parliament in 1776 could not be decided by a vote alone.

Streets and roads are very different animals. Willie Nelson sang, “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.” No one ever sang, “I just can’t wait to get on the street again.” Songs about country roads hold spacious truths because whether they are red dirt roads or roads with seven bridges, country roads are rich with the mysteries of life.

Marlene Dietrich was born in Berlin in 1901. In 1930, her performance in the film The Blue Angel made her a star. She moved to Hollywood, starred in six films, one of which earned her an Oscar nomination. Many more films would follow. She refused lucrative contracts from Nazi Party officials to be the leading film star of the Third Reich, became an American citizen in 1939, and devoted herself to doing all she could for American troops during World War II.

Benjamin Franklin ran away at seventeen with barely a penny in his pocket. Through hard work and his own genius, he made a life for himself in the printing trade, and was able to retire at the age of 42. He then spent the next 42 years of his life, from 1748 to 1790, pursuing his scientific and philosophic inquiries and doing all he could—and this was a very great deal—to benefit his city, state, country, and world. By the time of his death, he was one of the most famous people in the world.

The son of an Italian immigrant, Vincent Thomas Lombardi was born in Brooklyn on June 11, 1913. He played guard in the famed Seven Blocks of Granite offensive line of Fordham University in the 1930s before going on to become one of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport. His name is synonymous with winning. His steadfast spirit inspired the nation.

The Declaration’s great American proclamation that “all men are created equal” and the first three words of the Constitution—“We the People”—are profoundly connected. The relation between these two ideas—equality and consent—is the vital center of American political freedom.

We are not born understanding what it means to be an American, understanding the idea of political freedom, or knowing about the American Revolution. We have to learn these things. If we don’t, the American Revolution, political freedom, and Americans will vanish from the earth.