Today, on the Fourth of July, we gather with friends and family to celebrate the birth of America. Actually, we probably gather to barbecue and watch fireworks, the trappings of a birthday party where the honored guest is casually forgotten.
But let us endeavor to never forget the importance of the day, a day when a group of men from across the colonies, who gathered together to debate the merits of independence from Great Britain, became founders of a new nation. It did not occur without disagreement. Instead, it came about because a majority of the men who gathered had an uncompromising view of freedom, regardless of the result of any violence or war that was sure to ensue.
David McCullough, in his definitive biography of John Adams, writes of the impassioned debate between Adams from Massachusetts and John Dickinson from Pennsylvania. To move forward with the Declaration, Dickinson believed, would be “to brave a storm in a skiff made of paper.” But Adams, speaking with a thunderstorm swirling outside, was “logical, positive, sensitive to the historic importance of the moment, and looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time . . .”
The debate lasted nine hours and yet when it came time to vote a sufficient majority could not be mustered. Finally, on July 2, with a crucial delegate arriving from New York, key opponents abstaining from the vote, and South Carolina swinging to the majority, independence was declared.
It was a moment that Adams, Jefferson, and countless other men who dot our history books had worked most of their lives for. And it was at that moment that the fight turned from within to without, from one of words among friends to one of guns among enemies. But no matter, to be free of tyranny, to revel in the prize of liberty, to enjoy the right to set our own course as a nation and as men, these were the gifts of July 1776.
Those gifts did not come without a sacrifice then and they do not exist without a continual struggle today, 239 years later. Indeed, a cloud has already been cast over today’s celebrations. News reports of a “drumbeat of intelligence chatter about terrorist threats” suggest that we’re facing the most serious threats since 2011. Sadly, these type of terror warnings have become routine around the holidays, a consistent reminder that terrorists, many of them now “home-grown,” want nothing more than to break our spirit and challenge our notion that we are safe.
We live in a world fraught with danger. We are beset on all sides by people who would like to do us harm. who indeed believe it is the right and just thing to do. And yet we still find time to follow John Adams thoughts on the Fourth of July, contained in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail:
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forevermore. You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
How prescient those words seem today. We maintain the cause of freedom and democracy, but the defense exists far beyond the four corners of the Declaration to the entirety of the free world. We are continually forced to defend our land, although it is from forces of evil of which Adams could not have predicted. And a ravishing light still shines through the darkness of the evils of terrorism, though it has been dimmed, not by struggle, but by abundance.
Hardship will inevitably find us and when it does, we must remember, as Adams did, that the end is more than worth all the means. The cause of freedom, embodied in the Fourth of July, will triumph.