235 years ago today a relatively small group of colonists put their king on notice. They composed a document that listed their numerous grievances and explained precisely why they were declaring their independence from his rule.
It wasn't the beginning of the American revolution. That had started several years earlier, and it was far from the end. The war of American Independence raged on for another 5 years and at many times the outcome was in serious question.
During years when I am off-duty on Indendence Day I make it a point to read the Declaration of Independence in it's entirety. Sometimes as I do so I think of current events, and wonder how much longer the United States can hold out before another small group of citizens put our sovereign powers on notice. At other times I marvel at the durability of a nation that was formed in desparation.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan reminded the citizens of our Nation that the revolution didn't just exhange 1 tyrant for another, as so many in the world have done. Instead, it offered a new philosophy that is worthy of memory. At times, especially times like those in which we currently live, it seems important to remind ourselves, and especially the self-righteous, overly pompous windbags we tend to elect into public office, that the form of government forged as a result of the American revolution is based on the fact that government is nothing more than a convenience with no powers of it's own other than those voluntarily granted to it by the people. That which we giveth can also be taken away.
Here is the text of President Reagan's speech:
“There is a legend about the day of our nation's birth in the little hall in Philadelphia, a day on which debate had raged for hours. The men gathered there were honorable men hard-pressed by a king who had flouted the very laws they were willing to obey. Even so, to sign the Declaration of Independence was such an irretrievable act that the walls resounded with the words "treason, the gallows, the headsman's axe," and the issue remained in doubt.
The legend says that at that point a man rose and spoke. He is described as not a young man, but one who had to summon all his energy for an impassioned plea. He cited the grievances that had brought them to this moment and finally, his voice falling, he said, "They may turn every tree into a gallows, every hole into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die. To the mechanic in the workshop, they will speak hope; to the slave in the mines, freedom. Sign that parchment. Sign if the next moment the noose is around your neck, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the Bible of the rights of man forever."
He fell back exhausted. The 56 delegates, swept up by his eloquence, rushed forward and signed that document destined to be as immortal as a work of man can be. When they turned to thank him for his timely oratory, he was not to be found, nor could any be found who knew who he was or how he had come in or gone out through the locked and guarded doors.
Well, that is the legend. But we do know for certain that 56 men, a little band so unique we have never seen their like since, had pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Some gave their lives in the war that followed, most gave their fortunes, and all preserved their sacred honor.
What manner of men were they? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists, eleven were merchants and tradesmen, and nine were farmers. They were soft-spoken men of means and education; they were not an unwashed rabble. They had achieved security but valued freedom more. Their stories have not been told nearly enough.
John Hart was driven from the side of his desperately ill wife. For more than a year he lived in the forest and in caves before he returned to find his wife dead, his children vanished, his property destroyed. He died of exhaustion and a broken heart.
Carter Braxton of Virginia lost all his ships, sold his home to pay his debts, and died in rags. And so it was with Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Rutledge, Morris, Livingston and Middleton. Nelson personally urged Washington to fire on his home and destroy it when it became the headquarters for General Cornwallis. Nelson died bankrupt.
But they sired a nation that grew from sea to shining sea. Five million farms, quiet villages, cities that never sleep, three million square miles of forest, field, mountain and desert, 227 million people with a pedigree that includes the bloodlines of all the world. In recent years, however, I've come to think of that day as more than just the birthday of a nation.
It also commemorates the only true philosophical revolution in all history.
Oh, there have been revolutions before and since ours. But those revolutions simply exchanged one set of rules for another. Ours was a revolution that changed the very concept of government.
Let the Fourth of July always be a reminder that here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights; that government is only a convenience created and managed by the people, with no powers of its own except those voluntarily granted to it by the people.
We sometimes forget that great truth, and we never should. “