For we Americans, the Fourth of July is a day to spend outside enjoying the BBQ, the company of family and friends and reveling in our own patriotic fervor. This is as it should be. We have all been lucky enough to have been born in this great nation, free from tyrannical governments and oppressive laws. We can do, say, think what we want to when we want to. We can petition our government. We have the freedom to write and print what we believe in books, newspapers, magazines and online. We can elect those we want to represent our best interests. Today, and everyday, we Americans have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be proud of.
But 235 years ago in 1776, the Fourth of July must have felt very differently to that first bunch of Americans. On this day over two centuries ago, 56 men sat in a hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia Pennsylvania and hammered out the final details of a document which would forever alter the course of history. What today has become a day of celebration and joyful gathering, was probably an event of considerable apprehension for these worn out delegates.
The idea for our Declaration of Independence came into being early in the summer of 1776. By May the delegates of the Second Continental Congress were tired of receiving the cold shoulder as it were from their king. Peaceful pleas had not proved successful to alleviate their grievances and by now shots had already been exchanged in Massachusetts. The conflict was coming to a head more quickly than anyone in the colonies had anticipated and had already dragged on for much longer than George III would have liked ( to him it was still only a minor, concentrated rebellion).
Massachusetts lawyer and delegate John Adams put forward the controversial suggestion for a complete break with the King of England. This was not the generally supported course of action and many still hoped for peaceful reconciliation with the king. By June however, it became clear that negotiations were not going to be enough to solve the colonists’ problems. Again Adams suggested that a committee be formed to draft a declaration to justify a complete separation from Great Britain. Of the five man team which the Congress put together, a 25 year old Virginia planter named Thomas Jefferson was selected to pen the document.
Jefferson locked himself in the upper room of a Philadelphia boarding house for two weeks and wrote non-stop. He knew that every word he chose would carry with it enormous weight, each one had to be selected carefully and woven delicately into the draft. When he finished finally, his fellow delegates ripped Jefferson’s work apart, altering this and that to give the paper a certain feel and impact. In the end, while changes were made, a vast majority of Jefferson’s words were retained, making him the credited author of our Declaration of Independence.
Just as Jefferson knew that every word he chose would carry considerable weight, every one of the 56 men who set their names to the document knew full well of the risks they were taking. In signing the Declaration of Independence they were committing an act of treason against the King of England. Treason, at that time, was an offense punishable by death, specifically by hanging. These men had to have considerable courage to agree to such an audacious action. What’s more, the condition of the American military on which these 56 would have to depend to uphold what they signed their lives to, was not in the greatest of shape at all. For the duration of the American Revolution there were several instances where it looked as though we may have been defeated. Congress had to flee when Philadelphia was occupied by the British, leaving their families for fear of being captured and killed for what they believed in. It is because of their courage, strength and willingness to risk everything for the sake of a dream, that we do not have the worries our Founding Fathers did 235 years ago.
In the Declaration’s final lines it says that the signers “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” These men, these revolutionaries, risked everything for your freedom and for mine and their efforts should always be remembered.
So this Fourth of July, as you grill hot dogs or play a game of backyard Wiffle Ball, try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Would you, under penalty of death, have been able to sign your name to a document which could very well destroy everything you had worked so hard for? Would you have had the courage to blaze a trail of liberty and freedom as these 56 did? Let us all keep them in our thoughts this holiday. May God Bless their legacy, our sacred freedoms, and the United States of America. Happy Independence Day everyone.