Today, July 4th, 2015 marks the 239th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a holiday now usually observed in name only to the extent that it may appear to some that the day was set aside to promote bargain sales or foster the use of outdoor grills. Don’t be fooled or misled. The Declaration, one of most radical political statements of all time, announced an unthinkable voyage through largely uncharted waters – the creation of an independent republic from a dependent colony, and an attempt to alter the tide of nationhood in the age of kings.
What would the founders think now of the country they helped create so many years ago? Among other things, they would be astounded and probably appalled at the number of citizens who don’t bother to vote, a right that was dearly achieved not only during the American Revolution but also during later struggles which brought enfranchisement to women and people of color. Even in this era of political complexity, it would be very difficult indeed to explain to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin why so many now sit home and by default allow others to make decisions for them.
The founders might also wonder about our increasing dependence on foreign trade, especially oil, a development that seems to fly in the face of their original intent of the declaration they produced- and they would be hard pressed to understand why so many Americans are so wasteful of natural resources and so little inclined to conserve or use wisely what is available to them.
But what might trouble the founders most is the fact that so many of us have forgotten the reason for celebrating the Fourth of July so that what was vitally important for them has become just another excuse for the generic cavalcade of parades and parties. For many years, the Fourth was a very special day when the Declaration of Independence was read at town gatherings as a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices that our fledgling nation had to endure. That tradition, like so many others, has largely died out, supplanted by fireworks and social occasions.
Since the 18th century, much has changed. The shapers of our nation probably would not recognize the country they helped build, not only because of its technological improvements and its ethnic and racial diversity, but also because of the sheer size of its population. When the first census was taken in 1790, there were approximately 4 million people in the 13 states. In 2015, the population had risen to nearly 320 million. Roughly speaking, for one person then, there are eighty-two now. The nation had become crowded and complicated and perhaps harder to understand for the citizens of 1776, and conversely for us as well, as we try to envision the very different times in which they lived.
It is difficult now, for example, to comprehend the risks the Signers took in committing themselves and their states to liberty, because in an age of kings and monarchs, that liberty would be viewed as rebellion, and penalties were harsh. Those whose names were now a matter of record could expect death sentences for themselves, and deprivations for their country, including loss of home, lack of trade and revenue, and a prodigious sacrifice of life and suffering on both sides. If Crown forces prevailed, the colonies would be subjugated and have even less liberty than before.
But even if the Revolution succeeded, the new ship of state, on a dangerous and experimental voyage through uncharted waters, would still have great difficulty in its struggle for identity and independence. Now, more than two hundred years later, some would argue that the ship’s course has been stormy and uncertain, that it has failed to reach safe harbor, and that the promise of America is as yet unfulfilled.
Some might also suggest that the Declaration itself is imperfect. The omission of women, for instance, was the subject of a lighthearted yet serious rebuke from Abigail Adams to her husband John to ‘remember the ladies.’ However, the most deafening silence was about the onerous and divisive issue of slavery. That problem was put off for nearly a hundred years, to be determined by the bloody conflict of civil war. Yet the Declaration, now 239 years old, despite its omissions and flaws, signifies an important beginning – one that should still be remembered, honored and completed.