Since grade school, I don’t think of the Declaration of Independence or the 4th of July but about once a year; about right now, as a matter of fact. And as I think
about it now and try to project myself into that time and place, I get a bit
concerned that I am probably not man enough to have done what Washington and Franklin and the boys rose up to do in 1776.
When you are ten and are learning about the American Revolution, it all makes such great sense. Young boys love a good tussle and the war was gonna be a really good one. England was bad because the teacher said it was bad. We took her word for it.
Paying taxes on tea, stamps and other stuff was way over the head of a Coke drinkin’ prepubescent. But something about not liking your laws being written by people you don’t know far, far away perfect sense. So why not raise an army and put on blue coats and shoot lead balls at the other team? We were America and nobody tells us what to do!
But I know now, that in 1776 we were not America. We were colonists of the greatest empire the world may have ever known. The parents or grandparents of John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and even Button Gwinnet had left Europe years before and knew exactly what they were getting into. They were the field office feeding the financial engine known as Great Britain and colonists don’t ask questions…. ‘cause you’re not in charge, see?
Many people eked out a modest existence in the Colonies and others got rich. It was mostly the rich guys who objected to the financial constraints of ole King George and agreed to meet in Philadelphia to talk of ways to respond. In large part, I think this rabble rousing was originally a financial gamble with a huge downside risk, like a hostile takeover of Microsoft or something. But with bayonets.
I try and imagine myself as a successful cotton gin owner in Georgia and how I would have responded if I had gotten that letter from Ben Franklin. I would have known Franklin only by reputation, and here he was inviting me to Philadelphia to sit with a Continental Congress and talk redressing grievances with London, demand some representation in Parliament and maybe, just maybe, sedition.
Now I may have been mad as hell about the taxes I was paying and the redcoats that had taken refuge in my barns. But would I be man enough to say ‘that’s the last straw!’ and ride my carriage for five days just to risk my life and fortune with a crowd of strangers? How bad must it have been? Would I even consider sitting in a frock coat next to that whiner Patrick Henry for two weeks in July? Rich, presumably intelligent, men were setting themselves up to be hung by the neck until dead for signing the Declaration of Independence.
Other English colonies on other continents had more reason to revolt, in my opinion. In Africa and later in India, the Brits were ruling aboriginal people and enslaving a large number. Of course, you would be willing to risk it all if all you had was nothing at all. But these were the happy and content American
Colonies who calmly petitioned London for changes and when ignored went and
grabbed a gun.
Back to my original point. I do not know how bad it must have been, but it must have been pretty bad. I know the Brits had set up a blockade of Boston following the Tea Party but really, it had to be worse than that. Confusion reigned. Washington was already in Massachusetts with an army responding to a 700-ship armada. And plenty of normal folks had no interest in war. In fact, the Pennsylvania delegation in Philadelphia, made up mostly of pacifist Quakers, almost voted against Independence. Knowing myself in this day and age, I think I would have ignored Franklin’s letter. I like a predictable future and tend to avoid conflict. Thank God, better men felt differently.
The 4th of July to me now is more than the celebration of the birthday of my country. It is the celebration of brave, brave men with a lot to lose and the
will to lose it for the right cause. Men who, in keeping with the times, knew that honor and courage were more important than property. Men who saw further down the line than I and saw a fantastic nation with justice and liberty for all.
God Bless America.