It was a temperate 72 degrees on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, not the image we often get of oppressive heat and stuffy rooms. On that day, in that place, something incredible happened. Fifty six British subjects signed a document that declared that they were no longer part of the British Empire but were instead an independent nation.
From the point of view of King George III (1738-1820) it was nothing short of treason. He saw this as a rebellion that he would put down and punish harshly. This document would be Exhibit A on executing these men.
These 56 were not a diverse group, at least by modern standards. They were all white, Christian (including one Catholic), and men of some wealth. Some were farmers, some were lawyers, some were merchants, but all had the wealth to gather in Philadelphia. They all had a great deal in common, including their belief in revolution.
Previous generations were told that their ultimate loyalty rested with the king (or queen) and they had the power of life or death over everyone. But a 33 year old farmer and scholar from Virginia wrote this:
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
In other words we are primarily subject to God, not the king. We have rights that not even the king can violate.
We’ve made a great deal of progress in the last 246 years, but we’re far from done.
- We ended slavery in 1865. This was perhaps the largest task of all. The framers of the Constitution (13 years in the future) recognized that there would be no United States unless slavery were allowed to continue in the South. Slavery constituted our greatest challenge and it led to a conflict that nearly destroyed us. Today, 157 years after the abolition of slavery, we’re still reckoning with full racial equality. But the fact that most of us recognize this gives us hope.
- We have never reverted to governance by royalty and we have never come close. Several of our Presidents have been jeered at with the epithet “King.” If you watch the 2012 movie Lincoln he is referred to as “King Abraham Africanis I.”
- Freedoms of press, speech, religion, and assembly are entrenched. We think nothing of writing to the local newspaper criticizing our leaders, often not even thinking that citizens of other nations wouldn’t dare. We need to look over our shoulder when we walk into our place of worship.
- When we see discrimination we’ve done what we can to stop it. Women now vote. People of color can now live where they choose. Recent conflicts over marriage equality, once thought impossible, are now the law of the land.
And yes, we still have a long way to go. Today we are divided in ways we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Good people on each side accuse others of wanting to end our democracy. But our history gives us great reason for hope.
Next year I hope I’ll be commentating on our 247th birthday. I’m confident I’ll still be hopeful.