We come upon our annual festival of national birth, and most of us see it as an opportunity for a day off, a time for fun with family and friends, a time to be patriotic.
It is all those things. But it does us well to remember what was at stake not only that day, but during that time.
After years of back and forth with the British Parliament, the American colonists were faced with the barrels of British muskets at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The red coats attempted to take an armory of colonial weapons, and in response, the colonists had defended themselves. The battle led to the famous “shot heard round the world”—no one to this day knows if it was a British or an American soldier who fired the first shot of what would become the American Revolutionary War.
But shot it was.
Soon after, Congress established the Continental Army, and at the suggestion of John Adams, appointed George Washington as its Commander in Chief. Congress would then write a declaration to the world explaining their reasons for taking up arms—this was a year before the Declaration of Independence:
“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect,” Congress wrote. “We most solemnly, before God and the world, declare that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties, being with our [one] mind resolved to die free men rather than live slaves.”
It must be remembered that at this point, independence was not yet decided. Many in Congress and throughout the colonies didn’t have independence on their minds. But a famous pamphlet published in January 1776 would galvanize them—Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Paine argued, among other things, that monarchy was inconsistent with the Bible, and that it was absurd for a small island 3,000 miles away to rule a vast continent. To this day, the pamphlet remains one of the most read publications ever (proportional to the American population at the time). It’d be the equivalent of roughly half of Americans today read the same book.
The summer of 1776 commenced, and with it, the weighty issues of the day. King George III had declared the colonies in rebellion, and the momentous issue of independence was finally on the table.
A committee was appointed to write the Declaration which included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. They decided Jefferson should be the primary author, and it was Jefferson who penned the immortal words of our founding document. The Continental Congress, after some debate and alterations (including Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery) approved the document on July 2, and with it a previous resolution that the colonies should be Independent. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3:
“Yesterday the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of right ought to have full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all the other acts and things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes, which have impelled us to this mighty Revolution, and the reasons which will justify it, in the sight of God and man.”
But Adams knew this would be no bloodless endeavor. It would cost dearly. He recognized it for the revolutionary action it was, but believed it justified by divine and natural justice:
“It is the will of Heaven, that the two countries should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting and distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the case, it will have this good effect, at least: it will inspire us with many virtues, which we have not, and correct many errors, follies, and vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonor, and destroy us—The Furnace of Affliction [Isaiah 48:10] produces refinement, in States as well as individuals. And the new governments we are assuming, in every part, will require a purification from our vices, and an augmentation of our virtues or they will be no blessings… I must submit all my hopes and fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the Faith may be, I firmly believe.”
Apparently full of unbounded enthusiasm, Adams wrote a second letter to his wife Abigail—one that is quoted often, but of course assigns the great event to July 2, rather than July 4, but which prophetically anticipates our celebrations of the day:
“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the history of America—I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
Again, he made clear how sober was—this was no ordinary matter, America wouldn’t be transported on a feather bed. He knew this was not the end of the struggle, but the beginning:
“You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not—I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transactions, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
Soon after, George Washington issued his General Orders to all his troops, and wrote as follows:
“The blessings and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger—The General hopes and trusts, that every officer, and man, will endeavor so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”
We should remember these words and sentiments this Fourth of July, for the first Fourth of July was not a time for BBQs, fireworks, and fun. It was a time of distress, of war, cannon fire, and death. Most of the delegates to the Continental Congress could not even sign the document when it was finally approved and ready to be signed. There was hardly any army to speak of, and the British were advancing on Philadelphia. All was bleak, and an enduring independence seemed out of reach.
But it was reached. After eight long years of war, our forebears won their independence. Only then could they enjoy fireworks and joy. Only after they had spilled their blood could they look on the Fourth of July with happiness and wonder.
This side of Heaven, we should always remember the costs which enable our happiness—the blood upon which our joy has been established. Wives lost husbands, husbands lost children, children lost parents, and parents lost children. We should remember that all enduring happiness—the happiness worth having—is built upon sacrifice.
Let us read these words to our children, and to each other. Let us recall the true source and foundations of this day’s joy.
On this Fourth of July, in a time most would admit is perilous and divided, when the strands of brotherhood among fellow countrymen seem frayed and weak, we would do well to remember Adams’ sobering words the following year, 1777, when the heady days of July 1776 were past, and the days of blood and sacrifice were upon them:
“O posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”
Joshua Charles is a bestselling author, historian, researcher, and international speaker. He is a passionate defender of America’s founding principles, Judeo-Christian civilization, and the Catholic faith, to which he converted in 2018. He loves telling, and helping others tell, great stories that communicate great truths. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com