Independence Day: The Greatest Day in History
Opinion -- July 4, 1776 is the greatest day in human history.
On this day, 241 years ago, 56 brave souls pledged their “lives,” their “fortunes,” and their “sacred honor” to one another and to nothing more than an idea. Never before had a group given up so much for something so uncertain: freedom. Liberty was a newer concept; it could have turned into 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 on taverns and greens that had 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 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, 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. Outside Independence Hall, the First Continental Army had barely established a base camp, but principle dictated no other recourse; they 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 shockwaves 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.” Democracy had been tried and failed before, and yet, none of them questioned the cause. All of these patriots were willing to fight for the opportunity to control their own lives.
At first, the newly-formed United States failed. A loose confederation of states failed to protect their citizens, their economies, and the rights to civic participation that so many had just fought and died for. And, so, we must remember that 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. Change would only be achieved through deliberate, democratic processes.
For the next 73 years, America was divided, not only between north and south, but between dignity and depravity. No nation that enslaves or segregates its citizens based on the circumstances of their birth can claim for itself the mantle of greatness. That challenge led to a tragic Civil War to test this very foundation. Lives were lost on blood-soaked battlefields, entire generations of families were 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 16th President Abraham Lincoln, to remind the anguished nation of its our founding principles and “the angels of our better nature.” But, not long after, the gains of that effort were rescinded and it would take another 92 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. And 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 equal and free, with a powerful, individual voice and that we must preserve this freedom, these 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 this, 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 o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It has been a long and perilous fight and our banner yet waves.
Liberty has not evolved from the fragile state of 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 party, or even ideology, but to “the republic, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Our principles may seem universal, as “self-evident” truth 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. We are being tested now. 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. Never forget those that have fought and died to preserve those opportunities. There are imitations, but no country will ever match the might and the majesty of the American project. Liberty must always be America’s legacy - to ourselves, to our descendants, and to all humankind. “Let martial note and triumph float, and Liberty ring throughout the Land!”
Happy Independence Day!
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