I can’t remember when I last paid attention to the Fourth of July celebration. The holiday was for me little more than a day off from work and an opportunity to invite friends to the house for barbecue. Its significance, and that of the Declaration of Independence, got lost decades ago in the busyness and near monotony of fighting traffic, paying bills, washing clothes, raising children, punching time clocks . . . .
As I researched the circumstances surrounding what is perhaps the most important document in US history, I relearned why so many men and women gave their lives during the American Revolution. And I wondered why I, and so many other Americans, rarely read the words that set in motion the events which won our freedom.
In the early 1770s, King George of England reigned over the colonists with a severe and arbitrary fist. He forced them, under penalty of imprisonment, loss of property, or death, to house British troops in their homes. Court officials on the king’s payroll protected the soldiers from prosecution for any crime they committed, including murder. King George denied the colonists right to trial by jury. He enacted punitive taxation while refusing the colonists representation in decisions that affected them. He forced them, under penalty of death, into military service. The grievances cited in the Declaration roll on and on. I don’t know why they waited as long as they did before shouting, “Enough!”
The 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence were not hoodlums looking for a fight. Twenty-four were attorneys or judges. Eleven were businessmen. Nine owned large tracts of land in an era when few people owned property. Each one had a lot to lose by opposing the King’s tyranny. But they had more to gain . . . if not for themselves then for those who would follow after.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they wrote, “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.” And to wrest those God-given rights from the King’s clenched fist, they stood shoulder to shoulder “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Their pledge proved costly. Most of them died in poverty. Many saw their families murdered or imprisoned.
As most people who’ve studied history know, sometimes the battle goes that way. Sometimes men and women endure horrendous sacrifices to win freedom for themselves and others, yet never see the results of their sacrifices. Only the generations that follow are privileged to enjoy them.
The Declaration of Independence gave birth to the United States of America. With all of our current problems, needs and tensions, we remain a nation blessed by the One upon whom the fifty-six signatories called to help their fight for freedom. This year would be a good time for all Americans to find copies of the document at public libraries. Or print their own at the following URL: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.
Then, as the steaks sizzle on the grill, gather the guests and family around the table and read the document aloud. It’ll only take a few minutes. But doing so might change the way many of us view life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And it might change the way we view the One in Whose hand those things ultimately reside.