I gotta be honest. When I think of the Fourth of July, I think more of hotdogs and firecrackers rather than the momentous gathering of the founding fathers. When I hear “Independene Day” I think more readily of Will Smith punching aliens in the face than the epic birth of what is to become a wonderful and powerful nation. I look around and sense I am not the only one. When we do get around to remembering the actual event we often imagine a sunlight Philadelphia hall, and a gleeful congress of delegates happily raising their hands in support.
But lets not let our patriotic fruit punch water down our perception of history.
The actual event of the declaration of independence of the United States of America was an intense, personal, messy and exhausting time for those involved. We may not remember that to agree on the declaration, congress went through months of intense debate, which peaked in June. Arguments were weighted and countered late into the night. Sickness was rampant. Philadelphia’s summers were humid, hot and wet. This was the age before air conditioning. On July 2nd, Caesar Rodney rode 80 miles through wind and rain, arriving mud spattered and wet, just before the doors of congress closed to cast his final vote¹.
The men who signed the declaration were risking their own lives and the lives of their families. Had the operation failed they would have all been executed as rebels of the British Crown. Although there was much celebration in the days that followed, those who were at the center of it understood the gravity of the decision. Can they really pull of a war against one of the most powerful nations in the world? Will they remain united for even a decade if they have already had such intense disagreement within the congress? Did they really have what it takes to run a country? How did they know that their choice would not simply lead to one of the greatest catastrophes of the history of civilizations?
This was not by any means a light endeavor.
The fortitude with which the founding fathers acted must also be admired. They were taking a leap. Yet it was not a blind one. These were men who’s intellectual and educational roots reached back into the classics, the Romans and the Greeks. This was the age before mighty, Ivy League Universities. All that they were was the result of the books, readings and musings of their own personal libraries. Far from being a rebellion against history, the actions of the founding fathers were an appeal to history. All that they did, they did out of their understanding of the history of human thought and natural law. They were careful and thoughtful crafters of their worldviews, and were therefore able to pull off one of the greatest and most powerful governmental stunts of the history of the West.
John Adams writing to his wife on the day of the vote, pens these prophetic words:
The second day of July, 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by suceeding generations as the great annaversary festival. It ought to be to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion of God Almighty. It ought to solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time and forever more².
In an age of relativism, rebellion, dishonest leadership, fads and political celeberties, we will do ourselves good to heed to the weight and importance of history. If we forget where we came from we will very quickly squander that which was achieved on our behalf.
(1) Cited from McCullough, D. (2001). John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 129.