Over the weekend, I reacquainted myself with that episode of the HBO miniseries “John Adams” titled “Independence.” As a writer and editor, I watched with a special appreciation the part where Benjamin Franklin and John Adams are “tweaking” Thomas Jefferson’s draft—and the pain in the latter’s face as his “precisely chosen” words were modified. All in all, a modest sacrifice, to be sure. But I, for one, could feel his pain.
That said, anyone who has ever found their grand idea shackled to the deliberations of a committee, who has had to kowtow to the sensibilities of a recalcitrant compliance department, or who has simply suffered through the inevitable setbacks all too frequently attendant with human existence must have at least a modest appreciation for the trials that confronted not only that document’s authors, but those then living in these not-yet-united states.
Without question, 1776 is one of those turning points in history, not just for this nation but, in the course of time, for the world as well. And yet, from the perspective of those who, in 1776, put not only their property, but their lives on the line to achieve what we will commemorate this weekend, the prospects of success must surely have seemed unlikely. Indeed, 1776 itself was full of disappointments for many supporting the cause of independence—and near disasters for George Washington’s Continental Army. One can garner a sense for the change in tide by noting that Thomas Paine in January of that year published “Common Sense,” but before the year was out had turned his pen to “The American Crisis,” fretting about “sunshine patriots” in “times that try men’s souls.”
However, before the year was out, Washington’s troops would cross the Delaware under unimaginable conditions and win a stirring victory at Trenton, on their way to a series of impressive but largely unappreciated victories against the British army in New Jersey. Not that the worst was behind them: Less than a year later, Washington’s troops would winter at Valley Forge. Independence may have been declared in 1776, but it was not won until 1781, and not official for two years more.
The point, of course, is that we have much to be thankful for this Independence Day: for those who had the courage to stand up for the principles and ideals on which this nation was founded, for those who were willing then to take up arms to defend those principles and ideals against overwhelming odds, and those who have done so to this day.
If we are to preserve those “unalienable rights,” if we are to continue to enjoy the freedoms of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we must remember that the truths so eloquently espoused in 1776 may indeed be self-evident, but dictators and tyrants from time immemorial have sought to vanquish them. It is easy to forget amongst the grilling, fireworks displays, and summer temperatures just how precious those rights are, and how rare still in this world.
This Independence Day, we should remember that, “in the course of human events,” the battles that preserve those ideals for us and future generations are never really “won”; they must be fought for every day.
—Nevin E. Adams, JD
For those interested in learning more about the events noted above, I heartily recommend:
“1776” by David G. McCullough
“Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer
“Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence” by John Ferling
“His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph J. Ellis
For those who prefer a “lighter” read (a la historical fiction), check out:
“To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom” by Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen, and Albert S. Hanser