“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.”
Up until then, the idea that all men were created equal was just crazy-talk. Sure, there were some philosophers who were writing about these principles, but to actually put forth a document that would not only generate talk but birth a nation was a breathtaking proposition. Because by all men, they didn’t just mean the educated, the land owners, the wealthy, the nobility. All men reached out to include the lowly workers, the servants, those who could never have any hope of bettering themselves in society as it stood.
And rights! Who ever said anything about human rights? Up until not too long before that time, the biggest right a man could hope to have was to live his life with as little interference as possible from the king or government. And now these crazy men in Philadelphia talked about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The men who wrote these words and the men who put their names to this document were essentially signing their own death warrants, for what they said and agreed to amounted to high treason. We think of the portraits that hang in museums of the Continental Congress formally gathered to sign the Declaration. But we don’t know the half of it.
So enough of the history lesson already? Maybe not. What we have forgotten about the early days of our nation are the essentials, the courage, the dangers and privations faced. Men who marched with Washington had no shoes more often than they had shoes. The trail was literally marked by the blood of their feet as they marched. They weren’t paid often by a Congress who was paranoid about the strength of the army, even as they expected those same men to defeat the well-trained, well-appointed and well-armed British and Hessians.
Why did they do it? They were fighting for an ideal, for a principle. They fought for their homeland.
As you celebrated Independence Day with barbecues, parades and fireworks, perhaps you took a little time to read those words again, the ones that made us who we are, not the 13 British colonies in North America, but the United States of America, a free and sovereign nation. I hope you read them to your kids, too, and tell them what it means. Tell them about the courage of men and women, “who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.”