In a few short days many of us in the US will be celebrating the 240th anniversary of the founding of The United States of America. Many simply refer to the day as the Fourth of July but I opt for Independence Day. Every month in every year has a fourth but there was only one July 4, 1776 and what happened on and near that date changed the world. For me, it’s vital to offer tribute to those who believed what was then a seemingly impossible dream and risked it all in the pursuit of the dream.
While July Fourth is the officially recognized birth of the nation, the seeds of revolution had long been planted. The British Crown openly provoked the colonists with their Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Tea Act among others that were nothing more than stiff taxes designed to aid Britain with its costly wars in Europe. To further antagonize colonial leaders, Britain used its sea power to block trade with all other nations requiring the colonies to buy only taxed British goods. In order to enforce the various new taxes and regulations, the British were self obliged to increase the presence of British militia, which further raised tensions. The inevitable result came to fruition on March 5, 1770 when angry colonists took to the streets in protest to be met by British suppressing soldiers. Shots were fired and in the end five colonists lost their lives that day.
In the years leading up to July 4, 1776 many skirmishes occurred including the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. The Battle of Lexington and Concord began as an attempt to arrest colonial rebels, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and to seize and destroy colonial ammunition. The most intense fighting took place at the North Bridge in Concord where Minutemen, spurred on by the burning of Concord (fires intended to destroy ammunition raged beyond control) defeated three companies of British soldiers resulting in nearly 300 dead and wounded British as well as 100 rebel casualties.
These events, among many others, forged the mettle in the astonishing collection of souls who were to become the founding fathers of this great country. It’s important to note that not all colonists desired revolution or even a split from the British Crown. Nearly a third of the colonial population was considered to be loyalist. Most loyalists simply wanted to maintain the peace and to maintain their profit centers. The risk of revolution was too heavy a price to be paid by the loyalists. Many aided the British by offering intelligence regarding the whereabouts of troops and the members of the Continental Congress. Some even took up arms against the Minutemen.
In 1774 Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania authored a proposal that would essentially be a compromise of positions held by the loyalists – those who wanted to preserve the status quo of British rule – and those who sought independence. At the heart of Galloway’s proposal was the creation of a Grand Council that would act as another arm of the British parliament. After serious debate the measure lost by a vote of six to five. By the margin of one vote the dream of liberty and independence would survive.
On the second day of July, 1776 a British fleet and army arrived at New York. The Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia declares independence from Great Britain. Two days later, July 4, they adopted the Declaration of Independence.
Just one month earlier a commission headed by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was given the task of putting to words the deeply held thoughts and convictions of this body of congress. This was no small task. Jefferson, by consensus the best writer of the group, was charged with offering a cogent and powerful summary of the new American principle. How does one express the ideals of liberty, freedom, and self-determination in a world that has largely been governed by tyrants and the brutal use of force? Fortunately, Jefferson simply tapped into the well of the human spirit, and the “laws of nature” as described in the Declaration. “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.”
In the days leading up to July 4, 1776, the document was read aloud on numerous occasions followed by spirited debate and a series of alterations; 86 in all. The result was a lean pronouncement, of just 1,337 words. In this instance, and with all due respect to Shakespeare; brevity was truly the soul of wit. No fireworks were launched, not even a clinking of glasses as the men of the Second Continental Congress were armed with the solemn realization that the real work lie ahead and that they had just committed an act of treason laying to risk their lives and fortunes.
The Declaration would later be signed on August 2.
The signing was a very sober occasion indeed. Ben Franklin properly noted, “Indeed we must all hang together, otherwise we shall most assuredly hang separately.” Patrick Henry proclaimed, “I am no longer a Virginian, Sir, but an American.”
The 56 signers of the Declaration of American Independence had much to lose. Most were men of means and much of their means was put to work to fund the revolution. Further, before the ink was dry many of the signers were forced to flee their homes and their belongings. Nine of the 56 lost their lives before independence was secured through war. Five were captured and given brutal treatment. Others saw their wives and children taken prisoner.
Abraham Clark of New Jersey was father to two officers in the Continental army. They both fell prisoner to the British. When it was learned that their father was one of the 56 they were relocated to the Jersey, a brutal prison ship that witnessed the death of more than 11,000 American captives during the course of the war. One of Clark’s son’s was placed in solitary confinement and offered no food. He survived off of rations stuffed through the keyhole by fellow prisoners. As the war drew to a conclusion, Clark was offered his sons if he would only recant his signature and pledge loyalty to the British Crown. Clark simply answered, “No.”
In the final days of the war, at the fateful battle of Yorktown British General Cornwallis and his staff took shelter in the captured home of Thomas Nelson, a signer from Virginia. As the Americans tightened their grip on Yorktown, Nelson’s home remained. When Nelson asked why they were sparing his home the canon gunners replied, “Out of respect to you, Sir.” Nelson insisted, “Give me a cannon!” and proceeded to offer the first of many blasts to his home that would soon lie in ruin. At the conclusion of the war the nearly 2 million dollars that Nelson had borrowed to support the revolution had come due. The infant nation was unable to pay the debt and Nelson was stripped of most everything he had once owned. He died a year later.
Of the signers, two would later be elected President of the United States. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson respectively, would become the second and third Presidents of the new nation.
Adams and Jefferson were colleagues in revolution and the birth of a nation. At times they were friends and at times they were adversaries. In the end their love of country superseded all and the two men died on the very same day, July 4, 1826. They had both suffered a prolonged illness and both fought with all of their strength to see the 50th anniversary of their greatest service to their countrymen and indeed the world. On that day it is said that Jefferson awoke briefly and asked simply, “What day is it?” When he learned that it was July 4 he smiled, and replied, “Thank you,” and then quietly passed. A few hours later Adams’ final words are said to have been, “Thomas Jefferson lives.” Being blissfully unaware that Jefferson had passed a scant few hours earlier. It is rumored that a messenger dispatched from Jefferson’s home of Monticello to Adams passed a similar messenger bound for Monticello. In Jefferson’s will he offered a simple epitaph with the insistence of, “not a word more.”
Here was Buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of The University of Virginia