The place: Philadelphia. The time: June 1776.
The Continental Congress appoints a Committee of Five—Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and chairman John Adams of Massachusetts—to draw up a declaration of independence from Britain. Though John Adams seems the natural choice to write the initial draft of this document, he defers to the Virginian for several reasons, telling Jefferson by his own account, “You can write ten times better than I can.”
The committee agrees with Adams, and Jefferson takes up his pen.
On July 2, Congress votes to declare America’s independence from Great Britain, a date that Adams believes will be forever remembered. In a letter written to his wife Abigail on July 3, Adams asserts: “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.”
Adams is mistaken.
On July 3 and 4, Congress debates the declaration presented them by the committee, making changes in the wording. To avoid offending some of the Southern members of the Congress, for example, they strike out Jefferson’s charge blaming the English monarchy for the importation of slaves into the colonies.
On the evening of July 4, Congress approves the document we now call the Declaration of Independence. Over the next days and weeks, members will sign the document, knowing that by doing so they are possibly signing their own death warrants as rebels against King George III.
Despite the alterations made by Congress, one of Jefferson’s passages is left untouched:
“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.”
Jefferson’s words lie at the heart of the American Creed.
Near the beginning of his latest book, “Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America,” Charles Murray favorably cites fellow writer Samuel Huntingdon’s definition of this creed: “the political principles of liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, and private property.”
For more than 200 years, these principles have served as the bedrock of our American Republic. We have struggled to live up to these ideals, fighting a Civil War, for instance, to put an end to slavery, and nearly a century later, battling to ensure that the descendants of those slaves achieved equality under the rule of law. Women also fought for and won the right to vote and for other rights as well. Human rights remain paramount concerns both in this country and abroad, and our emphasis on the individual and freedom is demonstrated in a myriad of court actions over the course of our history.
It’s this creed that has drawn so many immigrants to our shores. The numbers of Europeans who processed through Ellis Island in the late 19th century came not only to enjoy the bountiful gifts of this country and its free enterprise system, but also to follow their dreams and breathe the air of liberty.
Freedom Breeds Prosperity
That creed, first envisioned by Jefferson and which might also go under the name of the American Dream, brought us prosperity and numerous privileges: the right to vote in elections, the right to a fair trial, the right to protest injustices, the right to go our own way for better or for worse. We may forget this Dream and its many benefits in the day-to-day exigencies of life, but it’s what has allowed us to live as we do.
And that liberty accounts for the great achievements of some of our citizens. Henry Ford’s mass production of the automobile, Thomas Edison’s electric lights, Silicon Valley’s computers and phones, the writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers who practice their arts without fear of government censorship, the scientists who have discovered everything from cures for polio to improved methods of agriculture: all of these people accomplished these things because they possessed the freedom to do so.
The same holds true for the rest of us. Here in America, we still possess the wonderful opportunity to make of ourselves what we will, to go as far as we can, to develop our own businesses. Around me, I see young adults operating their own construction companies, running restaurants and website businesses, practicing law, working as nurses and doctors. Others of their own volition enter college or the trades, free to succeed or to fail as they will.
The Price of Liberty
The American Dream comes with a price tag.
On Memorial Day, we remember those who died for their country in our various wars. On Veterans Day, we honor those who served their country in uniform.
On Independence Day, we might do well to remember our predecessors who also sacrificed themselves for our benefit. The wealthy surgeon who sends his children off to the best universities is the son of a successful owner of a car dealership, who, in turn, is the son of an immigrant tailor in Brooklyn. The surgeon’s wife grew up in an affluent home, but her great-grandmother lost her father to death when she was 12, dropped out of school, and worked a variety of jobs to help her mother make ends meet.
Then there are the volunteers who helped forge our country. The Fourth of July is the perfect time to remember with gratitude those who even today give of their time and treasure to help others: the mechanic who finds time on the weekends to work in a food bank, the busy mom who volunteers at her children’s school, the retiree who plays the piano twice a week to entertain residents in a nursing home.
Nearly 250 years ago, a small band of prominent men vowed “to pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Knowing that the consequences of that pledge might mean death by execution and the ruination of their families, these men did not take this oath lightly. Yet they were willing to give up everything, including their lives, for the cause of liberty.
We should treasure our freedoms and our rights, but if we forget that the foundation stones of these privileges are sacrifice, duty, and self-responsibility, liberty will die.
Patriotism and Celebration
Like the United States, many countries around the world set aside a day to celebrate their country. Canadians, for example, have their Dominion Day, and Australians honor their country on Australia Day.
This patriotism is a positive good. Some equate patriotism with nationalism, but the two are quite different. The patriot loves and honors his country; the nationalist believes his country is superior to other countries. A patriot values his patch of earth, the people who live there, and the ideals upon which his country was founded. He has little interest in comparisons with other countries, any more than he would put his beloved mother into a competition against other moms.
To celebrate our patriotism here in America, we host backyard barbecues, head for the beach, plant American flags in the front yard, and shoot off fireworks. My wife used to dress our small children and herself in red, white, and blue for the day, and put out small flags along the front sidewalk of our house. Some of us may talk to our children about the American past or the Declaration; others may scarcely think of the holiday itself while they are grilling hamburgers or popping off bottle rockets. Whatever the circumstances, like those patriots of old who rang church bells and lighted bonfires to celebrate the Fourth of July, we are commemorating our liberties and our heritage.
When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we are observing more than our break with the British and the creation of our American nation. We are paying homage to one of the most remarkable documents in human history, to the venerable and universal proclamation of our Declaration of Independence—that human beings are all created equal, that by their very creation they possess certain inviolable rights, and that these truths are “self-evident.” To those Founding Fathers such as Jefferson, Adams, and the rest, humanity—not just Americans—owes a debt of gratitude for these words alone.
Let me close with a remarkable story that seems closer to legend than to fact, but which is nonetheless true.
On July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams died. That remarkable circumstance brings chills every time I remember it. What are the odds of these two men crossing the bar on the same day and on such an anniversary? What are the chances of that?
And yet it happened.
The last words spoken by Adams were “Thomas Jefferson still lives,” but Adams was wrong. His friend and sometime opponent Jefferson had taken his last breath five hours earlier at his home in Monticello.
But the words of Jefferson lived and should live still in the hearts and minds of patriots everywhere.
As we Americans celebrate Independence Day this year, let’s be grateful for the republic those men gave us. More importantly, let’s resolve to keep that republic alive.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.