July 4, 1776, is a historic day that every American has some familiarity with. The original colonies dissolved their ties with Great Britain by declaring independence, and a bloody fight for freedom ensued. The Founders risked everything, knowing that if the war was ultimately lost then their aspirations of liberty would be squashed for good, along with any hope for their families and the generations that would follow. As Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The decision to declare independence was not without scrutiny and debate from within, as many Americans believed that the colonies were better off under British control. Ultimately, it was concluded that there was no choice, and this was specified in the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
“When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.”
A long list of grievances against the British King is provided later in the document, but the most well known and telling part of the document immediately follows the opening paragraph:
“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 – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The Declaration of Independence is an entirely unique document in that it idealizes the concepts of natural law and natural rights, the rights that pre-exist government and would ultimately lay the framework for the United States Constitution years later. No other document in the history of mankind had given the people so much power over their own lives and recognized that government is merely the instrument used to secure the people’s rights. The signers of the Declaration honorably swore their lives to one another and the citizens they were fighting for. All differences and disagreements aside, they were willing to give their lives for their fellow countrymen, for their brothers in arms.
Scripture tells us that “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The Declaration of Independence embodies this notion of sacrifice for a greater cause, concluding with:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Years later, after the Revolutionary War had been won and the Constitution ratified, the country was facing a bitter political divide. The election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is arguably the most divisive presidential election in America’s history. These two co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, who were once great friends willing to die for one another, were now subject to the partisan politics that affects us today. After a brutal election, Jefferson won the presidency and Adams returned home to Quincy, heartbroken and bitter. Their estrangement lasted for several years, but when Jefferson finally retired and returned home to Monticello, they began writing letters to one another. The wide array of topics discussed ranged from gardening to religion, and even to the deaths of loved ones. These two great statesmen, both of whom played an integral role in the founding of our country, were once again close friends.
After several more years of writing back and forth, Jefferson and Adams were a couple of old men whose time was near. Their last gift to us was a testament to America’s true strength as a nation. They offered a lesson in brotherhood, that no matter how far we may drift apart, we are still tied together as citizens within a free nation. Both men died on the same day, within hours of each other. That day was July 4, exactly fifty years after they signed America’s greatest gift, the Declaration of Independence.
The bitter partisanship of years passed was ultimately outweighed by the realization of something bigger and far more important. That realization being that we have a solemn duty to uphold the tenets of the Declaration, which states that we are all created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that the just power of government is derived solely from the consent of the governed. That we are fellow countrymen who have much more in common than we may often realize.
There has been an ongoing question in recent times with regard to how divided America has become: Is there a single significant cultural, political, social, or religious trend that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart? Undoubtedly a fair question that ought to raise deep concern. Truthfully, there is no easy answer here. However, if we fail to understand that we have much more to lose in being divided than whatever we may gain from it, then we will continue down the path of tribalism and political polarization. We share an obligation to stand for the liberty of our fellow Americans, of our fellow man. During our most bitter disagreements, we must remain unequivocally in support of each other’s rights. America is the greatest country in the history of the world and the birthplace of true freedom. It is our responsibility to pass down our founding values of individual liberty and limited government to future generations, so that they may also have the opportunity to prosper as our ancestors did. If there is one notion that has historically bound Americans together, even in the most trying of times, it is freedom.
Remember what we are celebrating on this day: The fact that on July 4, 1776, Americans came together to risk their lives in a pursuit of freedom that was all but guaranteed to fail, and against all odds, victory was achieved and the United States became the glimmer of hope for freedom in a world full of tyranny.