This coming Friday, the nation will, in large part, set aside its normal business for a three-day weekend filled with cookouts and fireworks displays, as we commemorate the birthday of our nation. Despite those “distractions,” some will think back on the courage of the nation’s founders and their vision in crafting a structure of government that remains a unique role model for the world—and well they should.
Still, students of history—and even aficionados of the musical 1776, readers of David McCullough’s John Adams, or its recent HBO miniseries adaptation—know that the decision to declare independence was no easy matter. Indeed, the political bartering involved in getting to a “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” would have been all-too familiar to the legislators of today.
While we celebrate the Fourth of July as Independence Day, that is neither the day on which the Continental Congress passed the resolution (July 2), nor the day on which the declaration was signed by the members of that Congress (only President of Congress John Hancock and Charles Thomson, Secretary, signed it on the 4th (the former in a hand "large enough for King George to read without his spectacles"). Most delegates didn't sign it until August 2. One didn't sign until 1781. Three delegates never signed.
The signers—who stood to lose everything they possessed, including their lives—surely did so with trepidation. Indeed, Hancock reportedly said at the signing on August 2 that they must all stick together—to which Benjamin Franklin reportedly responded, "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Of course, that declaration was neither the beginning nor the end. Hostilities with England had already been underway for more than a year, General Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown was still more than five years off, and an official end to the hostilities would not come until 1783.
Invoking the Vision
Less than a hundred years later, armies were once again fighting over those principles—one side defending the same basic rights of property, and freedom to enjoy it, that their forefathers struggled to establish; the other, to extend those same rights to all Americans. In the middle of that Civil War that would threaten to rip the young country asunder—and on the Gettysburg battlefield where July 4, 1863, would forever mark the end of the bloodiest battle in American history—President Abraham Lincoln invoked the vision of the nation’s founders to launch his Gettysburg Address with the words; "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The choices our nation faces today—on terrorism, the fighting in Iraq, health care, energy costs, the economy, and. yes, even retirement savings—seem relatively modest in scope when considered next to the daunting prospects our forefathers faced in 1776, IMHO. What they could not have had at that time—but what their vision has surely bequeathed to us—is a confidence in what we now consider American ideals, and the resilience of the American spirit.
Their sacrifices were made a long time ago—and the liberties they fought to win, and to preserve, are so interwoven into the normalcy of our day-to-day expectations that it is easy to forget just how precious they are, and how rare still in this world.
With all its faults, all its frailties, what we have here remains a special gift. A gift that young men and women are still sacrificing to extend to others today. A national treasure we should appreciate every day—even if we only celebrate it once a year.
- Nevin E. Adams, JD