America may seem hopelessly divided right now, but it’s good to keep in mind that the longest continual democratic republic in history began with much disagreement over America’s destiny. Not everyone wanted to plunge into the unpredicatable future of a brand new nation.
In 1776, delegates from the 13 American colonies gathered in Philadelphia to deliberate on whether to break away from British rule. Some were adamantly opposed, but the delegates’ disgust at King George’s tyrannical edicts won the day.
On June 7, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee made a motion, swiftly seconded by Massachusetts’ John Adams, to declare the colonies’ independence. The motion was debated for three days by the delegates before being postponed for several weeks.
Meanwhile, a committee consisting of Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson appointed Jefferson to compose the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, which he did, writing feverishly in his rented room.
On July 2, Congress passed the Lee Resolution: “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States.” Two days later, the delegates officially adopted the Declaration of Independence, whose most famous passage still inspires millions around the world 241 years hence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Twenty-five years after the Declaration’s adoption, Jefferson delivered his first inaugural speech on March 4, 1801.
The nation’s third chief executive warned against division in the still-new nation and entreated his fellow citizens to “unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
At the same time, he cautioned Americans against their own government lest it become tyrannical, a warning that rings true today:
“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvements, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”
At one point he wryly observed: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
History has. The fight for freedom is a never-ending battle, with threats from within and from abroad.
That we retain the bulk of the liberties and rights spoken of in the Declaration and guaranteed in the Constitution is a testament to the wisdom of those who gathered in 1776 and again at the Constitutional Convention.
America may be divided today along many fault lines, but it is still a beacon to millions around the world who have never experienced freedom.
In November 2016, America got a fresh chance to work toward Jefferson’s dream of a limited government. This July 4th, we have much to celebrate.
From all of us at the ACRU, we wish you and yours a safe and joyous Independence Day.