Today, we celebrate our Independence Day, when on July 4th of 1776, the men of the Continental Congress pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of freedom from the British empire. What strikes me forcefully is the date that we celebrate.
American independence was not won on July 4th, 1776; it was, rather, won on September 3, 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed. One could argue that American independence was won for all practical purposes on October 19th of 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered to Washington after getting soundly defeated in the Battle of Yorktown.
In between July 4, 1776 and September 3, 1783 lies 2,615 days. Seven years of war and struggle, of starvation, of want, of death.
Yesterday, my family and I visited a couple of historic sites in Morristown, NJ where Washington had his winter headquarters in 1777. Not oft told is the fact that because of Washington’s army camping in Morristown in an age without sanitation, one out of four citizens of Morristown died of smallpox and dysentery. Just a few thousand strong, facing the well-trained, well-organized military of the greatest empire the world had known then, with its ranks ravaged by disease, lack of supplies, and lack of real military training… one could only imagine the desperation that must have gripped those men every day.
Later, we visited Jockey Hollow, where the Continental Army spent the winter of 1779. Some 13,000 men spent a miserable, freezing winter in a series of 14’x16′ wooden huts, often packing twelve men into one hut. As one website about Jockey Hollow asks:
Walk up one day in January and imagine staying there until it gets warm enough sometime in April to take off your down jacket. Imagine standing there without your shoes on, without even one of the huts on top of the hill for retreat from the incessant cold. Try to conceive of something important enough to keep you on that hill for the rest of the winter.
Indeed. Try to conceive of something important enough to keep you on that hill for the rest of the winter.
Some two hundred and thirty four years later, living as we do in the very lap of luxury, touring the sites of the Revolutionary War in the air-conditioned comfort of our advanced automobiles, it seems to me that we Americans celebrate the wrong Independence Day. Seen in the rearview mirror of so many years, it seems almost as if Independence were a simple thing indeed: get some guys together in a hall in Philadelphia, have one of them write up a great, noble-sounding document, and everyone signs it and heads home. Next thing we know, we’ve got TV shows on the History Channel that we ignore in favor of American Idol. What’s the big deal? It’s a time for fireworks and cookouts!
After all, isn’t declaring independence the main thing? Who indeed could refuse American independence when faced with such ringing words as:
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.
Those truths may be self-evident, and all men may be endowed by their Creators with certain unalienable rights, but still 13,000 men froze in a harsh New Jersey winter, and thousands and thousands died on battlefields, in their homes from disease, and suffered tragedy upon tragedy to prove those self-evident truths.
It seems that even self-evident truths require men willing to risk it all, willing to stand guard in freezing cold, willing to say that proving the truth is important enough to stay on that hill. Even unalienable rights must be defended over 2,615 days of the cold of winter, the heat of summer, disease, hunger, fatigue, death, and war by men and women willing to say proving self-evident truths and defending unalienable rights are important enough to keep them on that frozen hill for the rest of winter.
Does it not say something of us, of Americans, that we celebrate the day when we declared our Independence, rather than the day when we finally won it? Koreans, for example, celebrate August 15th as independence day, rather than March 1 when Korean independence from Japanese rule was declared. What does it say about us?
I think it says two things about us. First, that we celebrate merely the declaration suggests that we take far too lightly the sacrifice of patriots who secured our unalienable rights for us, and proved self-evident truths. It suggests that we think too little of the 2,615 days of action between the words “we are free” of the Declaration and “yes, you are” of the Treaty of Paris.
But second, that we celebrate the declaration also says that Americans by their very nature are people who back up their words with action. In some respects, that our Independence Day is July 4th shows American confidence. The important step was making the decision, not realizing the dream. For we are a hopeful people, an optimistic people, who may be slow to anger, not easily provoked, but once decided, impossible to deter.
That is how I choose to interpret this day. Even as we face assaults both direct and insidious on our freedoms, on those self-evident truths, on our unalienable rights from enemies within and without, I believe that the American will has yet to be tested. Some of us have started to say the words in gatherings, protests, tea party gatherings, in back rooms as precinct captains… but as yet, we Americans have not declared that the encroachments on our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by our own government, by our own modern-day King Georges, shall not stand.
But we shall. We must. And whether that struggle takes four months or four years or seven years or seventy, as an American, I believe that we will accomplish what we declare. That is who we are.
Between July 4, 1776 and September 3, 1783 were 2,615 days. Happy Independence Day.