America: 231 Years Old...or Young?

This year, we celebrate the 231st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence marking the birth of our nation.

It was the product of the Continental Congress with such dedicated leaders as John Adams of Massachusetts who served on some 90 committees, chairing 25 of these! In May, 1776, Adams offered the resolution which set the wheels in motion toward the actual writing of the Declaration. Working on a portable desk of his own construction in a room at Market and 7th Streets in Philadelphia, 33 year-old Thomas Jefferson set on paper the grievances and aspirations of the 13 colonies — 1,337 words beginning with “When in the course of human events …”

Historically, citizens of the world’s nations derived their rights from their ruler — a king, emperor or military dictator. The Declaration declared a revolutionary new doctrine: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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.” It was a bold new concept that individual liberty was a birthright.

56 men signed the document, pledging to support it with “our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” President John Hancock signed first and his signature was the largest. Putting down his pen, he quipped: “There. Now George the Third can read my name without spectacles, and may now double his reward of 500 pounds for my head. That is my defiance.”

The oldest signer was Benjamin Franklin, aged 70. Six were in their 60’s. Ten were in their 50’s. Nineteen in their 40’s. Seventeen in their 30’s. And three in their 20’s. Lawyers, judges, farmers, merchants, ministers, teachers, a musician and a printer.

Each and every one had pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor. That was certainly a big price to be willing to pay for something called “freedom” in the event that George Washington’s ragged, untrained and outnumbered army was unable to repulse the British forces.

In the Revolutionary War that followed, five of the Signers were captured by the British and brutally tortured. Nine fought in the War and died from wounds, or from the hardships they suffered. Twelve had their homes pillaged and burned. Several lost wives, children or entire families. Seventeen lost everything they owned. Not one, however, wavered in his pledge to his nation’s freedom.

In the face of the advancing British Army, the Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore on December 12, 1776. For President Hancock, it was a particularly difficult time because his wife had just given birth to a daughter, Lydia. But under the adverse conditions caused by the war, Lydia lived only a few months.

During the three years of British occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, William Ellery’s house was burned and virtually all of his property was destroyed.

When the enemy came, John Hart, a New Jersey farmer, was driven from his wife’s bedside as she lay dying. After a year of hiding in nearby forests and rock caves as a common exile and fugitive, he finally returned home to find his wife was dead, his 12 of 13 living children had disappeared, his stock, farm and mills had been completely destroyed. An old man at the time, he never lost his spirit and joined Washington’s army as a private after the battle of Princeton. Hart himself died in 1779 without ever seeing any of his family again.

Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge and Arthur Middleton, all of South Carolina, were captured by the British during the Charleston Campaign in 1780. They were kept in dungeons at the St. Augustine prison until exchanged a year later.

William Braxton of Virginia invested almost everything he had in the revolution. Virtually all of it was destroyed by the British and he lived the rest of his life in poverty.

Philip Livingston of New York never saw his home again. Richard Stockton, a State Supreme Court Justice, had rushed back to his estate near Princeton after signed the Declaration only to find that his wife and children were living like refugees with friends. They had been betrayed by a Tory sympathizer who also revealed Stockton’s own whereabouts. British troops pulled him from his bed one night, beat him and threw him in jail where he almost starved to death. When he was finally released, he went home to find that his estate had been looted, his possessions burned, and his horses stolen. His health seriously impaired in prison, Judge Stockton died in 1781, and his surviving family had to live the remainder of their lives off charity. His last words to his children begged them to remember that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”

The military victory achieved by Washington’s armies after numerous setbacks was nothing short of miraculous. The system of government established in its wake was mocked and ridiculed throughout the world as “folly, doomed to failure” at worst and “a great experiment” at best.

Who, but God Almighty, could have possibly written such a magnificent script with such moving chapters? Much of it would certainly be rejected by today’s Hollywood producers as being “over the top”. Was it just coincidence that on July 4th, 1826, Thomas Jefferson awoke from a bed-confining illness at his home in Monticello, Virginia to hear the church bells and cannons celebrating the Declaration’s 50th Anniversary. “Is it the 4th?” he asked. When he heard “yes”, Jefferson smiled and within minutes had passed away. Incredibly, at the same time, a critically ill John Adams in distant Quincy, Massachusetts heard the same sounds of the celebration, and, only hours after Jefferson’s death, Adams also died. Both knew that their “great experiment” had survived at least a half century. (Our 5th President, James Monroe died five years later on July 4th, 1831. He had served with distinction, and was seriously wounded, in the Revolutionary War.)

These last two and a third centuries have been packed full with changes: the exploration of the west, the growth from 13 colonies to 50 states, the Industrial Revolution, the birth of trains and automobiles and airplanes, the Space Age, the Computer Age – to mention just a few. They have also seen bitter and costly conflicts including a Revolutionary War, Civil War, two World Wars, and recent actions in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. All in all, we have suffered over 660,000 combat deaths. The cost of protecting and preserving our freedom has averaged nearly 2,900 Americans per year — our finest young men and women killed in combat on battlefields throughout the world.

On this July 4th, 2007, we must ask whether our nation is 231 years old, or young. It is for us to not just celebrate and enjoy the achievements of our Forefathers, but to make certain that the individual liberty which they won for us is never lost or compromised and that what is still “a great experiment” is blessed with success for generations to come. May God continue to Bless America!