This week, of course, is the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While, these days, few would argue that the result we celebrate today remains largely unique in the history of the world, it is easy, looking back, to gloss over just how remarkable a sequence of events made this nation’s independence a reality. The bickering and machinations of Congress then were every bit as unpleasant, and occasionally unproductive, as the worst of today’s elected officials – even though, and perhaps in some measure because, hostilities had officially been underway since the so-called “shot heard round the world” the preceding spring.
The men that gathered in Philadelphia that summer to bring together a new nation came from all walks of life, but it seems fair to say that most were men with something to lose. True, many were merchants (some wealthy, including President of Congress John Hancock) already chafing under the tax burdens imposed by British rule, and perhaps they could see a day when their actions would accrue to their economic benefit. Still, they could hardly have undertaken that declaration of independence without a very real concern that they might well have signed their death warrants. Nor did they even represent the position of a majority of their countrymen at the time – historians have said that only about a third of the nation favored independence, while a third remained loyal to Britain (the remainder apparently just wanted to be left alone).
Ironically, despite tomorrow’s celebrations, the resolution that declared that “these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States” was approved by the Continental Congress on July 2. In fact, 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 of the 56 delegates didn't sign it for another month. One didn't sign until 1781.
Of course, that declaration was neither the beginning nor the end. The winter at Valley Forge still lay ahead, and Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown was still more than five years off. An official end to the hostilities would not come until 1783. Despite all those sacrifices, less than a hundred years later, as the nation approached another Independence Day celebration, President Abraham Lincoln would find himself in the middle of an enormously unpopular war fought to keep the nation together, while two armies converged at Gettysburg.
In sum, as monumental an undertaking as it was to state for the ages a belief that we are created equal, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” among those “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – we continue to enjoy the exercise of those rights only because people have, over the ensuing years, been willing not only to defend our rights, but to sacrifice so that others could enjoy the exercise of those same freedoms.
This Independence Day, let’s keep those who continue to risk their lives in the pursuit of liberty for all in our prayers.
- Nevin Adams
You can read more about the Declaration of Independence at http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/declaration.html