The Greatest Day In History
On this day, 243 years ago, 56 brave souls pledged their “lives,” their “fortunes,” and their “sacred honor” to one another. Never before had so many given up so much for something so uncertain. We often forget how close liberty is to anarchy. Indeed, the first battles of the Revolutionary War were guerrilla affairs in which makeshift militias ambushed uniformed soldiers of the homeland the colonists respected, if not revered. Imagine how a colonist might feel at the outset of this War for Independence. As blood was shed in taverns and fields that had only known peace and tranquility before, even General George Washington feared they may never know the liberty they sought. Had they become the beasts they pledged to tame? And they were aware if they did not win liberty in the end, the Declaration of Independence would have been nothing more than a stillborn nation’s suicide note.
The men of the Second Continental Congress were not radicals. On the contrary, they identified as British subjects well-versed in the benefits and responsibilities that came with the distinction. When they first met to discuss petitioning King George III, most wanted nothing more than the restoration of their rights as Englishmen, but when they met again in the sweltering summer heat of ’76, the British had already sacked Boston and gunpowder from the “shot heard ‘round the world” still hung in the air. The First Continental Army had barely established a base camp in Cambridge, but principle dictated no other recourse; all of the colonies would have to fight a total war against the world’s strongest empire, and they were determined to win for nothing more than a principle.
That principle, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” sent shock waves around the world. It is customary to question American exceptionalism today but in that moment, the Americans were the exception. They had not just taken up arms against a tyrant, but sought to vanquish a monarch in order to establish a new form of government, “a government of men,” deriving the totality of its powers from the consent of the governed. Democracy had been tried and failed before, but none of them questioned the cause. Every patriot was willing to fight to the death for the opportunity to control their own lives.
At first, the newly-formed United States failed as well. A loose confederation of states failed to protect their citizens, their economies, and the rights to civic participation so many had just fought and died for. And, so, we must remember the Declaration of Independence would be remembered as mere words etched onto a worn piece of parchment if those same patriots from the summer of 1776 had not returned to Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the U.S. Constitution. It is there that our principles were codified, fortified, and where they formed the basis of an entirely new concept: ordered liberty. The framers would invest power in the federal government, the states, and the people that formed them, and then limit the power of each through a clever system of checks and balances. Lasting change would only be achieved through deliberate, democratic processes.
For the next seventy-three years, America was divided, not only between north and south, but between dignity and depravity. No nation that enslaves, segregates, or discriminates against its citizens based on the circumstances of their birth can claim for itself the mantle of greatness. Principle one again dictated no other recourse: America would have to fight another total war, a Civil War. Lives were lost on blood-soaked battlefields, entire generations of families eliminated, and a nation torn asunder was left to retire each night wondering if the United States was simply a relic from a century before. It took an exceptional leader, our Sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln, to lead the anguished nation back to its founding principles and “the angels of our better nature.” Through the Constitution’s amendment process, Congress finally recognized the importance of equal representation and equal protection for all citizens. But the gains of that effort were rescinded not long after the cannons fell silent and it would take another ninety-two years before elected representatives would write into law the very provisions that Lincoln and the Union had fought for, and so many had died for.
And so, it is this independence we celebrate today, not just a day of independence, but a history of independence. It remains a struggle, an ongoing identity crisis, but freedom is still the tie that binds us. In the blood of every American is a love for civic participation and our founding principles: that all men and women are born free with a powerful, individual voice and we must preserve this freedom, our rights. We agitate for social change, but we resist the urge to undermine democratic processes for they are the sole guarantors of equal representation in our republic. When Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall, he is rumored to have encountered a woman who asked him, “Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?” to which he replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.” And to that end, through many trials and tribulations, our country has endured. Our principles have endured. They have brought us together through the most harrowing of divisions. It is as if Francis Scott Key perfectly captured the spirit of America when he penned the Star Spangled Banner: “through the perilous fight, our banner yet waves.”
American liberty has not evolved from that fragile state at its inception. A republic is only as strong as the people’s commitment to its strength. It takes all of us living by our Pledge of Allegiance, not to a political party, a leader, or even ideology, but to “the republic, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Our principles may seem universal, as “self-evident” truths to us, but every generation has seen them tested and chosen respect, dignity, and equal treatment in order to form “a more perfect union” together. It is our duty to apply the principles of our founding to the challenges we face today if we are to once again preserve this republic — free, strong, and secure — for every American and those yet to come.
On this Fourth of July, rejoice in the great gains we have made through self-government. Representative democracy and individual liberty helps balance the contradictions of the past with the promise of opportunities for renewal. Never forget those that have fought and died to preserve those opportunities. There are imitations, but no nation will ever match the might and the majesty of the American project. Liberty will always be America’s legacy — to ourselves, to our descendants, and to all humankind.
So here’s to the Spirit of 1776, “let martial note and triumph float, and Liberty ring throughout the land.”
Happy Independence Day!
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