Since the early days of our Nation’s founding America has celebrated its birthday while the rest of the world watches – some jealously, some with disdain, and others with awe. The birth of America – the “Great Experiment” in self-government – is still a strange notion in many parts of the world.
For me, the Fourth of July is indeed a time of celebration, but it is also a time of remembrance and thanksgiving. It is more than just a date on a calendar, it is “Independence Day” – a day when a small group of men gathered on a hot, steamy day in a horsefly ridden room stood together and declared that they were free and were prepared to take up arms to defend that freedom against the mightiest military power of their day.
On July 2, 1776 the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence which called for a complete separation from Great Britain. It was two days later, on July 4 that the draft of the Declaration was signed by two individuals: John Hancock, the President of Congress, and Charles Thompson, Secretary of Congress.
Four days later, on July 8, the members of Congress read the Declaration of Independence from the steps of Independence Hall proclaiming it to the city of Philadelphia. Afterwards, the Liberty Bell was rung. I find it fitting that the inscription around the top of that bell reads, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof”.
On August 2, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed by the members of Congress. William Ellery of Rhode Island stood at the table to see the face of each delegate as he courageously put his name to the document. He witnessed some men sign quickly "but in no face was he able to discern real fear." He watched as Stephan Hopkins, also of Rhode Island and a man in his sixties, put his signature to the document with a shaking pen while declaring, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not."
The first shots of the American Revolution had been fired the year before at Lexington and Concord. News coming in from General Washington was not encouraging and British ships were at anchor in the New York harbor, but still our Founders put their names to a document - their death warrant - that ended with a firm resolve “…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”.
While we celebrate today, the solemnity of that day was recorded by Dr. Benjamin Rush in a letter to John Adams in 1781:
Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the House when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe to what was believed by many at that time to be our death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning was interrupted, I well recollect, only for a moment by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry at the table: 'I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing... From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.' This speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.
These men had a solemn understanding that freedom is not free.
For the first three years of the Revolution no country would give a loan to this fledgling nation to fight the British. Robert Morris of Pennsylvania was the financier of the war and used his personal fortune and his own credit to keep the Continental Army equipped and on the move. Even after foreign powers began providing financial assistance money remained in short supply.
In 1781, General Washington was planning the campaign against Cornwallis at Yorktown. He turned to Judge Peters of Pennsylvania and asked, “What can you do for me?”
“With money, everything, without it, nothing,” came the reply.
General Washington anxiously turned to Mr. Morris who replied, “Let me know the sum you desire.” It has been commented that the campaign of 1781 resulting in Cornwallis’ surrender and virtually ending the Revolutionary War (the peace treaty would not be signed until 1783) was possible wholly on the credit of one individual. In the end, the new government in America was unable to repay Mr. Morris and yet he never complained, because he had given his word.
The personal sacrifice of Robert Morris was not unusual for the signers. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence:
- Nine died of wounds and other hardships during the war.
- Five were captured, imprisoned, and brutally treated.
- Several of these men lost their wives, their sons, or their entire families. One, John Hart of New Jersey lost his wife and never saw his 13 children again.
- Twelve had their homes completely burned by the British.
- Seventeen lost all that they owned.
Freedom is not free; it is bought with blood and washed with tears.
John Adams commenting on the signing of the Declaration reflected:
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 to maintain this Declaration… Yet through all of the gloom I can see rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all of the means; that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even though we may regret it, which I trust in God we shall not.
Our Founding Fathers have passed the torch to succeeding generations; let us not allow it to go out. This Independence Day remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us in defense of, and to preserve, our Liberty. Give thanks to God and, like John Adams celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, raise your glass in a toast proclaiming, “Independence forever!”
May God bless our men and women in uniform on missions throughout the world serving on our behalf and may He comfort those whose loss runs deep.