Most years, July 4th arrives hot and sticky. We celebrate with cookouts, going to the beach, playing softball, and watching fireworks in the evening. Since 1889, when my great great-grandfather noted in his diary: “children and grandchildren played baseball,” my father’s family has played softball at his home outside of Boston. It is pleasant and comfortable being with friends and family. But it is light years away from a similarly muggy day in Philadelphia when representatives of the thirteen states met 237 years ago. We are a fortunate people who live in freedom, with little sense of how many have died to retain it and less knowledge of how difficult it was to forge. It is easy to take liberty for granted when we never had to fight for it. While we watch from afar street demonstrations in Cairo, Israel’s constant struggle for survival and a civil war in Syria, we should remember why we celebrate this day. The United States had its own Civil War, fought to hold together a nation rent by the abomination that was slavery, a denial of the very essence that all men are created equal.
Today marks the sesquicentennial of the major turning point in the Civil War – Gettysburg. Of the approximately 164,000 soldiers from both sides that took part, almost 8,000 were killed or died of their wounds in the three days of battle. Another 27,000 were wounded, and 11,000 were captured or missing. In Monday’s Wall Street Journal , Allen Guelzo, professor at Gettysburg College noted that Lincoln heard of the victory on July 4 th , which he saw as a “symbolic coincidence.” It was, Professor Guelzo says of Lincoln, as though a bright line had been drawn between the first time in 1776 when a new nation’s representatives declared as a “self evident truth that all men are created equal” and 1863 when “the cohorts of those who opposed that declaration that all men are created equal had turned tail and run.”
More than anything, July 4 th represents the birth of a nation. In the summer of 1776, 56 representatives of about 2.5 million people from the thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia, which, at 40,000, was the country’s largest city. The Second Continental Congress, on July 2 nd approved the newly written Declaration of Independence. Early on the morning of the 4 th , church bells rang throughout Philadelphia, signaling that the Declaration of Independence had been adopted. The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, Lexington & Concord and Bunker Hill were all in the past. The crossing of the Delaware, the Battles of Monmouth, Brandywine, Charlestown and Yorktown would all be in the future. It would be seven years before the British would finally give up and sail for home.
A few weeks after the Declaration, 427 British warships carrying 1.200 cannon, 34,000 British and Hessian troops and 10,000 sailors appeared off Long Island and in New York Harbor. Facing the greatest army and navy in the world were Generals George Washington and Nathaniel Greene, with about 5,000 ill-trained volunteer troops. The Revolution was about to begin in earnest.
The process toward independence had taken many years. It was not easy for most colonialists. Familial and business ties linked Americans to England. The French and Indian War – only 20 years earlier – concluded with Britain dominating the eastern half of North America. About half the residents of the American Colonies in 1776 were British by heritage. (Interestingly, but not surprisingly the second largest group were Africans.) Virtually all the signers of the Declaration of Independence were British. Being a member of the Commonwealth was seen by many as a positive thing. The British navy protected ships engaged in commerce and trade. The relationship was symbiotic. Englishmen and women served as customers for goods produced in America and were a source of supply of finer clothing, clocks and china.
Rebellion was a serious step. Had the Revolution failed, there is little question that all of the leaders would have been hung as traitors – their lives and their fortunes would have been forfeited. The decision to rebel was seen by Loyalists as an act of treason. For men of wealth – and most of the signatories to the Declaration were wealthy – the decision to join the Revolution was an all-or-nothing decision. Failure would mean death and penury for their heirs. It could not have been an easy decision. In his concise, readable and fact-filled short history, Revolutionary Summer , Joseph Ellis tracks the events from May to October, 1776. Professor Ellis shows how consensus was reached in the weeks before Philadelphia. The debates covered everything from the moral integrity of the revolution, to slavery, women, to broadening the electorate to include men without property. Benjamin Franklin cautioned against independence until after a new government had been formed. While New England was early to declare independence, it was only late in the process that Pennsylvania and New York endorsed the concept, with New York’s delegation voting in favor a week after the Continental Congress approved the Declaration.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was a reluctant revolutionary, as were many, especially in the Mid-Atlantic States. Gillian Tett, in last weekend’s Financial Times , wrote of a recent book, The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution . These were men who were part of the elite, but who were determined to protect their privilege. They were not loyal to the crown, but they did not want to see the country fall into anarchy. Their enlistment was critical and much credit goes to John Dickinson who anonymously published “Letters from a Framer in Pennsylvania.” In them, he defended the concepts of liberty and freedom, but in the context of property rights, the rule of law and free-market capitalism. Mr. Dickinson, according to Ms. Tett, was considered the most trusted man in America. Once committed to the Revolution, in 1776 he penned:
Then join hand in hand, brave
By uniting we stand, by dividing
The more one reads about the era – and tosses myths and stories overboard – the more it becomes apparent that it is not just a miracle we celebrate, but the extraordinary efforts by a small group of people who were able to convince the majority of the righteousness of their belief. As well, we must acknowledge that the leaders – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Dickinson, Madison and many others – knew full well that should they fail they would be hung as traitors. As it was, there were about 50,000 casualties, of whom about 8,000 died in combat. That may not sound like a lot over eight years, but keep in mind the population of the colonies was 2,500,000. A comparable number of dead and wounded today would be six and a half million.
But the consequence of their bravery and determination is that we live in the freest nation the world has ever known. Ronald Reagan spoke often of a “city on a hill.” It was an image recycled from Governor John Winthrop in 1630. Winthrop, in turn, borrowed the words from the Bible and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In his farewell address in 1989, President Reagan described what he meant by those words: “…it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans…a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” It is an image to be remembered as immigration is debated in Congress.
Democracy can be fragile, ephemeral and inefficient. Democracy only works when people take an interest. It cannot be taken for granted. Complacency infects even the hardiest. An exacerbated Thomas Jefferson once frustratingly declaimed: “My God! How little do my countrymen know what blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people enjoy.”
Freedom is not free. It is demanding. “What we obtain too cheap,” wrote Thomas Paine in December 1776, “we esteem too lightly.” But it is, as Moshe Dayan once said, “the oxygen of the soul.” In 1779, Thomas Paine wrote: “Those how expect the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” As we enjoy our liberty, we must also be ever vigilant, especially regarding a government that trends toward dependency and erodes personal responsibility. In Man and Superman , George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Liberty means responsibility – that is why most men dread it.”
Nevertheless, the strength of the country has always been in its people and the knowledge that they will, when pushed hard enough, fight back and do the right thing. That has been the case for 237 years. The long-term survivability of our country depends on the Spirit of ’76 being alive in ’13. So whether you spend the day at the beach, barbequing with your family, or participating in a Coney Island hotdog-eating contest; or whether you are pitching a softball to the granddaughter of your second cousin, or sitting on the bank of the East River watching New York City’s fireworks, remember the reason you are able to do so. Think of those who died at Valley Forge, at the Alamo, Antietam, on San Juan Hill, at Belleau Wood, on Riva Ridge, Chosin Reservoir and the Battle of Hue. Remember those who continue to fight for our freedom – those who have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who have been grievously wounded. It is because of them that we are at liberty to enjoy the freedom to picnic with our friends and family. None of those who died would want us to spend the day in mourning, but respect requires we think of them and that we honor the principle of freedom for which they fought, and be unafraid of the responsibility that comes from self-reliance.
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“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams
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