On the Fourth of July we proudly celebrate the day 13 colonies became states and those states became a nation. But there was far more going on.
When drafting our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson could have written solely about the need to replace a despotic king with a just one – the issue of his day. Jefferson could have left off the promise of respect for every individual’s “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But he didn’t.
Unlike any other nation, America was founded on a promise that, no matter who you are or where you’re from, you will have the opportunity to pursue your dreams – your happiness – free from government oppression. It was a promise no other nation had ever made.
This promise released an entrepreneurial energy that turned 13 backwoods colonies into the world’s largest economy and most powerful nation. While our efforts to keep that promise have been imperfect, the ideals that gave birth to it keep us striving for perfection.
I take that promise very personally because I am one of the Americans who have benefitted from it. I am a second-generation American from a working-class family. I worked at any job I could find to get through college and law school – from painting houses to jack-hammering concrete – without government or family assistance.
I was always aware that the only thing that would determine whether my dreams became reality was my will to achieve them. The path to success was arduous, but unlike the European nation from which my grandparents emigrated, there was a path.
I eventually met with success as the CEO of CKE Restaurants, an international restaurant company. But my story is hardly unique. I stood on the shoulders not only of our nation’s founders but also the self-made Americans who preceded me.
These self-made Americans included people such as our company’s founder, Carl N. Karcher. One of eight children, Karcher left his family’s farm in northern Ohio for California during the Great Depression with an eighth-grade education and the desire to improve his life.
Karcher got a job as a bread truck driver in the years just before World War II and noticed that he was delivering a lot of hot dog buns to a vendor with a cart across from the Goodyear plant in South Central Los Angeles. When that cart came up for sale in 1941, Karcher got a $311 loan from a local bank with his car as security, convinced his wife to part with the $15 she had been saving, and bought that hot dog cart.
Within a few years, Carl Karcher had a half-dozen hot dog carts and began selling burgers as well. A few years later he opened a full-service restaurant in Orange County, California called Carl’s Drive-in Barbecue. In 1956, he opened his first Carl’s Jr. hamburger stand.
When I retired as CEO of that company in 2017, we had over 3,800 restaurants employing about 125,000 people in 45 states and 40 foreign countries, producing over $4 billion in annual revenue. All from a $326 investment in a hot dog cart and a young farm boy’s dream of a better future.
In CKE’s over 75-year history, it has employed and created opportunities for hundreds of millions of Americans in positions ranging from entry level jobs to executive management. In all likelihood, had Carl Karcher been born in any other nation, he would have died an impoverished serf and his potential to improve the lives of others would have died with him. His success is a clear example of the strength and importance of the promise we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
Yet Carl’s story is also far from unique. The examples of Americans rising from the humblest beginnings to great success are legion.
Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of slaves from Louisiana, rose from poverty, created a cosmetics empire and is widely regarded as the first female self-made American millionaire.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford also rose from humble beginnings and changed the world. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, an adoptee and college dropout, did so in my lifetime.
Howard Schultz, Oprah Winfrey, Ralph Lauren, John Paul Dejoria, and Sheldon Adelson are but a few of the living examples of successful Americans who rose from humble beginnings and went on to create jobs and opportunities for untold numbers of people across the globe.
In this time of intense political partisanship, it’s important to keep in mind just what we are celebrating on the Fourth of July. Independence from another nation to be sure. But we also celebrate the promise of individual liberty upon which our nation was founded.
It was an independent, freedom-loving people who made America the most prosperous nation in history. A nation of government-oppressed serfs could not have done so. Our independence and our freedom to pursue happiness make us an exceptional nation full of exceptional people – with the God-given opportunity to prove it.
This article originally appears on Fox News on July 3, 2018