On July the 4th, 1776, a congress of citizens in what would become the United States of America declared – on behalf of a small cluster of colonies clinging to North America’s eastern seaboard – that a people could and would be united against and independent of the rule of a king. It was just a piece of paper, really, when you think about it. Just words captured in ink dabbed on the end of a quill.
Just ideas, a collection of thoughts and beliefs.
Yet that single document changed the world.
That single document, reflecting the committed resolve of a relative few, carved liberty from the global tree of the British Empire.
At a cost. A horrible yet utterly worthwhile cost.
And not in short order, not for the men whose lives and whose blood backed up the words with steely resolve. The war those words precipitated lasted eight years. Considering that active US combat units were really first deployed in Vietnam in about 1965, and remained on station until about 1975, what we’re talking about with the Revolution the colonies ignited is only two years less give or take than what happened in Southeast Asia in the 20th century. Yet we look back on the 4th of July each year and think that freedom was won and enjoyed on the strength of a single document. That our burgers and ribs and shrimp and crab legs and lobster tails were granted by a claim and have since that first 4th been a birthright.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Freedom and liberty are indeed the birthright of every American. Both did indeed spring from the words a pen etched on a document. But nothing about the lasting impact of those founding ideals was simple, nothing about them was easily won, and not one of those timeless words lasted into even July the 5th of 1776 without resolve and absent sacrifice.
Put yourself for a moment in the 1700s. It’s no easy task, mind you. But try. Picture yourself and your family and your friends and everyone you love living in a world where monarchies are the order of the day. Imagine swearing an oath of loyalty to a king. Hard, right? Because in America in 2014 none of us are required to swear an oath to anything unless we land on a jury or wind up winning an election. But back then, everyone was required to declare loyalty and fealty to their supposed betters.
Well, except maybe pirates. And it’s not that they hadn’t sworn at some point. They just broke their oaths in order to live free in a world more libertine than libertarian. Yet in the Caribbean they formed some semblance of democracy where the measure of a man was predicated on his skills and not on his color or his social status. That went for women, too – Anne Bonny is as good an example as any.
But for the pirates, freedom came still at a cost. Perhaps a government-issue rope, or perhaps a sudden squall at sea. A musket ball, a cannon’s blast, or the sword of a Royal Navy officer. Blackbeard’s name lives on in infamy and legend, but his decapitated body didn’t swim around any ships. His ghost may or may not haunt the Point which bears his name, but the man himself has been dead since 1718.
Just as Crispus Attucks has been dead since 1770, six long years before a single document declaring independence would mark the first step toward consecrating the sacrifices of those slain in the Boston Massacre.
Edward Teach, the Blackbeard of legend, died on his feet in a world where men were ruled like dogs. Attucks, a black man, died on his feet in American colonies where the rule of kings was coming into question in a manner perhaps never witnessed before by the perpetual sands of time.
Yet still that world changed. Ink on a quill. Words on a page. Signatures on a document.
Ideals unassailable and convictions indestructible. A belief in humanity at the individual level, with liberty and justice and accountability for all.
Those words ring clearly and with a beauty, do they not? Liberty. Justice. Accountability. Yet none of them come easy, no matter what your Weber grill and the charred meat it bequeaths to your table on this day may try to tell you. Liberty can cost you your life or your health. Ask the men who went barefoot at Valley Forge, or the ones who died at Saratoga and Gettysburg and Normandy. Go on, ask them.
Justice. That one can leave a mark. Perhaps as a rope burn around your neck while your corpse sways in the breeze and the birds keep singing while what was once human in you departs this life. Justice is an ideal saddled with horrible truth, a stallion of freedom in whose wake the unjust must answer with finality. It is a wondrous thing. Yet it is no easy thing.
And accountability. The unspoken yet foundational component to the tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For none of those three can truly function without it. In October of 1943 a man named Ernest Evans was in command during the commissioning ceremony for the USS Johnston, a Fletcher-class destroyer. During the ceremony, he spoke these words:
This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.
In October of 1944, Evans and the Johnston and her crew encountered and engaged a massively superior Japanese naval force off the coast of Samar. Evans took the fight to those who by the numbers should have won with ease. Much as his forebears at Concord and Lexington had done. He and his ship lost that day; Ernest and many of his men along with their fair lady the Johnston now sleep with Davy Jones and the denizens of the deep. Yet their actions saved a task force which would prove crucial to American victory in the Pacific. In pursuing life and liberty and happiness, it can be argued that Evans and his men failed. It can also be argued, with the weight of history in support, that they succeeded and that their accountability in the moment of crisis when Hell itself rained upon their decks and ruined their bodies that they secured for generations to come an opportunity for life, for liberty, and for the pursuit of happiness.
Sometimes words are not merely words, not simply the ink-stained scratches of pen on parchment and a noble sound emanating from patrician mouths.
Sometimes, they are everything. And those who’ve gone before us have paid every last thing in order that we might hear and have the opportunity to live those words.
Thomas Paine wrote, in the early months of 1776, the following:
“Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”
Just a few short months later, Paine’s contemporaries concluded the Declaration of Independence with these words:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
And of such was a nation born the likes of which the world had not previously and has not since borne witness.
This is what Americans celebrate on the 4th of July. Whether we recognize and honor it or not.
Happy birthday, America. Please remember both to recognize and to honor the timeless truths which allowed you to become what you are.
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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