A year into the revolution, the American colonies remained deeply divided. Perhaps a third of the population had joined in the armed revolt against the British Parliament and King. Another third actively supported the English, the world’s one established superpower. Still another third sat nervously on the fence, awaiting to see how the revolution would fare.
Representatives of the 13 colonies had gathered in the Second Continental Congress, themselves bitterly split on whether the colonies should take the irrevocable step of declaring independence. Many, particularly in vital New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Delaware hoped that King George might intervene and mediate an agreement between the rebellious colonies and parliament.
On June 11, Congress appointed John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman to draft a declaration of independence that could weave together the warring factions — and state their case to the world.
A remarkable document emerged from this committee, with the draft likely composed chiefly by Thomas Jefferson.
The resounding statement of principles that opened the declaration have become among the most famous sentences in the English language: “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 those are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Furthermore, the declaration embraced the radical idea that human beings invented government to secure those natural rights — and owed no allegiance to any government that trampled those rights. In fact, the declaration insisted that human beings have an actual duty to overthrow any government that threatens those rights.
The revolution succeeded thanks in substantial measure to the help of France, anxious to weaken its British nemesis in any way possible.
We have spent the centuries since in brave, muddled, creative pursuit of those rights — that hope of happiness.
We have amassed a brilliant history, full of triumph and tragedy.
Dedicated to freedom, we clung to slavery — then paid the terrible cost in a heart-rending war.
Wanting mostly to be left alone, we have taken on burdens to protect friends and allies and to overthrow tyranny.
A nation of immigrants, we have struggled mightily with prejudice and racism — but left that harbor door open and the torch lit.
We have built the most devastating military force in the history of the world, but when we invade we yearn only to bring the boys home and leave the foreigners to their muddle.
Through all of that, we have held to the dream, to the sacred belief that government must serve the people — not rule them. So we held an election in the midst of the Civil War, we impeached a president who broke the law, we even peacefully accepted the election of a president who did not get the most votes. For we believed in the nation and its ideals, even when we disagreed bitterly with the outcome.
So now we turn once again to celebrate the vision and confusion from which it all sprang 235 years ago.
Across the world, people long oppressed have risen against governments who have made themselves enemies of those inalienable human rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They face dangers and must pay a terrible price. We know this. We have paid that price.
In truth, the bill comes due anew for each generation. More than 5,000 Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan have rendered that “last full measure of devotion” Abraham Lincoln honored on the Gettysburg battle ground when he in his turn invoked that same declaration.
And in Washington today, our representatives contend with as much passion and confusion and intensity as did those delegates to the Continental Congress 238 years ago, divided, brave and fearful — each of them seized with love of country.
For we understand that each generation must pay their toll to pass through the doors — and must add their mortared stones to the great work of the centuries.
So happy Fourth of July.
Be sure to hug your children — and help them love their country as you do.
Be sure to read the paper and watch the news — maybe curse a politician or two.
Be sure to watch the sun set behind the ridgeline of the land that has sheltered us.
Somehow, we’ve pulled it off for 235 years.
Way to go guys. But don’t relax now: We’re just getting started.