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Jul 02 2011

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The Original Audacity of Hope

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Faith, Determination and Courage

As we gather this weekend to enjoy picnics and parades, to wave flags and watch fireworks, take a minute to remember the real history that was made 235 years ago.

Popular imagination remembers the delegates of the Continental Congress, all gathered in Philedelphia as bells rang, bravely stepping forward to sign the Declaration of Independence, with the cocky John Hancock writing his name on center and large, “so that King George III could see it without his spectacles.” 

But that, as John Adams himself pointed out years later, is a myth.

While Congress declared independence on the 4th, and copies of the document were printed locally and sent out by rider to the cities, the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence occurred over a period of weeks.

The majority of delegates signed by August 2, but outliers – delegates that had been away from Philadelphia, or new members of Congress – signed as late as November 1776. 

The actual list of 56 signers was not known to the American public until January, 1777.

This under-appreciated fact is of great importance, as it was during this six-month period, after the Declaration, that the American Revolution came closest to outright collapse.

As the delegates boldly declared political independence, the fate of that vote rested on the failing military fortunes of the ill-equipped Continental Army, that was in New York preparing for the largest invasion force to attack the American homeland in US history.

There were 120 British ships in New York Harbor as indendence was declared. Those vessels were the precursor of a fleet that would eventually number more than 400 ships; a giant fleet by 18th century standards, and one that is particularly large when you consider that today’s entire US Navy consists of 282 ships.

The British fleet carried 32,000 British and German (Hessian) troops, considered to be among the finest field soldiers in the world. The British-Hessian army was larger than the entire populations of New York or Philadelphia at that time.

The  juxtaposition of a brazen political statement for independence and the precarious military situation outside of New York could not be more in contrast.

Beginning with the British landings on Long Island, the British forces drove the Continental Army into Brooklyn, then over to and eventually out of Manhattan. Washington’s battered army was forced to retreat into New Jersey, where the British chased him the length of the state. By December, the remnants of Washington’s beaten forces crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, south of Philadelphia.

Now consider that despite the forces arrayed against them and the horrendous military setbacks that were an existential threat to the cause of liberty itself, the members of Congress continued to come to Philadelphia and sign their names to the Declaration. 

They did so even though the act effectively made them traitors to the Crown. If the British prevailed, they would likely be executed for treason.

As David McCullough wrote in his book “1776,” “From the last week of August to the last week of December, the year 1776 had been as dark a time as those devoted to the American cause had ever known – indeed, as dark a time as any in the history of the country.” 

Yet the signers put everything they had – including their lives – on the line, not because it was easy, fashionable or advantageous, but because it was right and just.  

The Declaration of Independence ends in a pledge:

“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.”

More than two centuries later, the words remain among the finest examples of faith, determination and courage in American history.

History shows that on Christmas night, 1776, General Washington gathered his remaining forces, crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey and attacked and defeated a Hessian garrison at Trenton. In January, Washington again attacked, this time in a daring raid in the British rear in Princeton.

Washington’s successful offensive literally saved the American Revolution and the eventual American experiment.

Writing a history of the American Revolution a century later, Sir George Otto Trevelyan would say, “It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater more lasting effects upon the history of the world.”

Indeed.

Thus on the 4th of July, reflect on those days; on those men and the principles they sacrificed, fought and died for, so that we might be free today.

But do so, not in the stylized, contemporary version of surety that we assume now, but with knowledge of the individual acts of bravery, committed despite the risks of uncertainty and failure. 

This is  where the well springs of our national character reside, and our ability for renewal remain, for all those who seek it.

In the words of Mercy Warren, wife of Revolutionary leader James Warren, “[there are] no people on earth in whom a spirit of enthusiastic zeal is so readily kindled, and burns so remarkably, as among Americans.”

Right on.

Happy 4th of July.

 

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