(America The Beautiful, written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895)
July 4th. For many Americans it’s a day off from work and an opportunity to invite friends to the house for barbecue. And for most Americans, its significance, and that of the Declaration of Independence, gets lost in fun.
I pray this year is different for all of us. Our nation is at a crossroads, the result of two generations of a diluted and revisionist focus on American history in our schools. The implacable bravery, unrelenting dedication to freedom and the incredible sacrifices of life, health, comfort and fortunes of our forefathers to purchase our liberty – our freedom from oppression – is rarely (if ever) mentioned any longer in our school classrooms. Our children, and their children, have not learned – as those of my generation learned – of the desperate struggles of American patriots that eventually won our God-blessed American heritage.
I hope our celebration of Independence Day will be a little different this year. 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.
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 created numerous 'offices' and send minions of government officials to ensure obedience to new and intractable laws. He enacted punitive taxation while refusing the colonists representation in decisions that affected them. He forced them, under penalty of death, into military service. Read the Declaration (see link below). Their grievances 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 much 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 and growing 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.