Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy Independence Day

"Writing of the Declaration of Independence"
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

It's the Fourth of July in America, the day we celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. "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," wrote Thomas Jefferson in his opening statement.

I am as proud of this commemorative day as any American, but I question the salutes I've been reading as posted by some Facebook friends. We are so quick, we heavy handed and heavy footed patriots, to credit our military at any opportunity. Support our troops! Of course, I do support our troops, and I recognize their sacrifices specifically on Veterans' Day and on Memorial Day. At airports, when I pass a soldier I fear is headed off to war, I think good thoughts on his behalf, and when I see a stranger shaking that soldier's hand and saying thank you, I feel better about humanity. So, yes, our soldiers deserve our gratitude by word and deed year round.

But on the Fourth of July, it isn't soldiers of the past I pay homage to. It's our founding government leaders, with all of their courage and persistence, who deserve credit today. The colonial leaders who signed our Declaration of Independence and voted to adopt it as a unified group, brought together through arguments and compromises and bitter words between them, weren't soldiers, for the most part. They weren't generals in any colony's militia.

Read through the list of their occupations. These men were lawyers, merchants, land owners, scientists, physicians, with a few ministers and a musician thrown in for good measure. These were educated men of the Enlightenment who understood the importance of thoughtfulness, nuance and communication between men in order to construct a new government. They were eloquent in speech and with a pen, capable of acting above mob mentality, courageous enough to act out of principle and not in response to public opinion (in many cases, although granted not in all).

I took a quiz this morning to test my knowledge of the Declaration of Independence. I scored very poorly, but I learned a great deal by reading the answers at the end of the quiz. One of the more intriguing questions asked why it took more than a year between the beginning of our War of Independence and the official adoption of a declaration of it. I had no idea. Here is the answer as it reads in this Big Think quiz:

"The colonies were divided on whether it was the right time to declare independence. Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and South Carolina wanted to break away in 1775, but other colonies had hopes for reconciliation with England or worried that an all-out war would encourage the French and Spanish to pursue further inroads in the New World."

The colonies were divided on many issues—slavery being a key one—and each representative took the time to work through the details, to address the issues thoughtfully, to understand the ramifications if they were to act too quickly.

So, it's to these Men of the Enlightenment that I tip my hat today, or at least light a sparkler and trace pretty shapes in the dark sky above me, as I don't wear hats. We are a free nation because they studied philosophies that promoted democracy over monarchy and reason over superstition, because they drafted a declaration based on those philosophies and because they joined intellectual forces to adopt it all and make it official. If not for their foresight, what would our soldiers be fighting for? And what would we have to celebrate today?


dive said...

Hear, hear, Robyn!
Headed as we are into a new dark age of fundamentalism and intolerance I'm glad there are still a few of us left rooting for the Enlightenment.

Have a wonderful Independence Day!

mmebenaut said...

Hear hear too Robyn for your thought-filled and thought-provoking piece. We are still under the embrace of the Monarchy of England of course but there are many discussions about the subject of our one day inevitable independence too. Hope you enjoyed your Independence Day.