Thoughts on the Fourth
Two hundred and twenty-six years ago today, a group of men from all over the British colonies in North America took a terrific risk. They gathered in Philadelphia to put their names to a document which was to be sent to the most powerful man in the world — King George III, on his throne in distant London. In that document, they politely but firmly announced the birth of a new type of human being — the American citizen — and in the process, they told that powerful man where he could put his divine right of kings.
When the bells rang in Philadelphia that day, a story began that is still unfolding. It is the story of the word “freedom”, and how it came to evolve from a privilege held by a lucky few to the birthright of all who came into the world on the soil of this new land. Sometimes the story is drama — Abraham Lincoln consecrating the battlefield at Gettysburg, Franklin Roosevelt telling his people that they had nothing to fear except fear itself. Sometimes it is tragedy — thousands of sailors perishing in the hulks of Pearl Harbor’s Pacific Fleet, millions of citizens crashing into poverty in the Great Depression. And sometimes, it is even farce — one need look no further than the Presidential elections of 1876 and 2000 for examples.
And yet, for 226 years, the story has gone on. There have been moments when it appeared that the last chapter had been written. George Washington must have thought so as he and his ragged army shivered at Valley Forge. The thought must have crossed the mind of Lincoln as he read the terrible casualty rolls from lost battles at Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Surely Roosevelt took pause as he watched the frantic retreat of the reeling American forces hit by the awesome Japanese army across the Pacific. But, in all those cases, we as a people rallied, took heart, and won the day — and, in the process, discovered new meanings in that old word, freedom.
Today we live in a society that is perhaps more free than any that has ever existed. Almost every one of us has the franchise now — an idea unimaginable to the men who signed that document in Philadelphia. We can go where we please with no internal passports, say what we wish without fear of persecution, worship as we will without needing anybody’s authorization to do so.
And yet, freedom is a fragile thing, and there is no enemy with more power to take our freedoms away than we have ourselves. We can vote our freedoms away, electing men who value office more than honor. We can sell our freedoms away, buying products and services from monopolists and multinationals who seek to strangle the small businesses that preserve competition and vitality in our economy. We can even idle our freedoms away, by doing nothing as those who would profit from our subjugation chip away at our right to speak, to assemble, to live as free men and women.
Today, as the fireworks die out, the parades march off into the distance, and the crowds go home, it’s important to remember what freedom really means, and the men and women who have suffered and died to allow us to gain that understanding. Freedom is a rare gift in a world where the lot of most people over the millenia has been slavery or servitude. Are you doing your part to make sure that it’s not a gift that we’ll be the last to enjoy?