Two-hundred-thirty remarkable years have passed since July 4th, 1776 – but what lies ahead for our liberty-blessed land? Let us take stock, at this anniversary of our nation’s founding, of how we started on our course as a nation, and whether we still possess the character of that free people our Founders envisioned us to be.
Read the Declaration again with a fresh appraisal, and note the measured tones of the stirring words that begin the treatise: “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”
“When…it becomes necessary….” Armed hostilities had commenced on 19 April 1775, at the battles of Lexington and Concord, and a year before asserting American independence, on 5 July 1775, the Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, beseeching the British king for a peaceful resolution of the American colonies’ grievances. As with tyrants ever, the King declined the proffered peace.
The Founders further remarked on their natural hesitation to act boldly in severing ties to England: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. – Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” A second time in this passage, the Declaration signers contended they acted out of necessity.
The Founders described their entreaties to the British government: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Once more: “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation….”
It is remarkable, indeed, how our nation’s character has changed. Upon deciding that independence was necessary, our Founding Fathers acted decisively. How often these days do we match such resolve?
Postmodern American man, steeped in moral relativism and doubtful of ascertaining truth, is a bundle of eclectic capacities and features – a far cry from the Founders’ notion of human nature. They believed that each individual human is created in the image of God, with the stamp of that divine impress best seen in the fact that each of us is a morally choosing being, fully capable of knowing and distinguishing right from wrong.
Our Founding Fathers thus treated liberty of conscience, most particularly in regard to faith, as central to the project of freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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 – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” The Founders believed our lives are not vehicles of pleasure but have moral consequence based on our chosen path of conscience and that government should follow our lead.
So started the American Revolution, with this formal statement: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….”
The signers concluded, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” The Founders forged the earliest temper of our populace on the anvil of freedom, and we diminish such courage and resolve at our own great peril.
These were men, “heroes and patriots” in Noah Webster’s words, intent on founding a country fit for citizens possessed of sturdy virtue, firm determination and sound judgment, and to inculcate within the new land’s citizens a resolve for liberty. This is the heritage we celebrate this Independence Day. Let’s live up to it.