As another Independence Day arrives, let’s reflect on the incredible sacrifices made by our nation’s founders, and how their vision of America still applies today.
The birth of America is a wondrous story that should bring tears to our eyes – not because the baby was perfect, but because it arrived, against formidable odds, with so much potential to make the world better.
Our kids have us watching “House of Cards” on Netflix, a cynical series about behind-the-scenes American politics. I enjoy it, but it’s a reminder of why, in 2013, Americans trust Wile E. Coyote more than Uncle Sam or his seedy brother-in-law, Really Big Business.
More uplifting is the 2008 HBO series “John Adams,” drawn from historian David McCullough’s spectacular book of the same name. As good historians do, McCullough provides careful documentation of the recorded thoughts of Adams, Jefferson and other founders. Because Abigail Adams was as insightful as her husband, and the two were often kept apart by his public service, they left behind a rich collection of letters detailing those extraordinary years before and after 1776.
The Adams’ were ahead of their time in foreseeing not only the need for American “independency,” but also the sacrifices it would require. It was ever-practical John Adams who pushed George Washington of Virginia to lead the Continental army and prepare for the wrath of King George III.
Looking even further ahead, Adams recognized the need to form a kind of government the world had never seen – one ruled by laws, not corruptible men. Long before independence was a fact, Adams drafted “Thoughts on Government,” envisioning a system with checks and balances in the form of two legislatures, an independent judiciary and an executive who would double as commander-in-chief. His document was in hot demand well before 1776, among colonies working out their own constitutions.
There was plenty of reason for good people to prefer England’s protections over independence, and right up until the spring of 1776, most colonists did. Only after King George sent us the bill for the debt he’d piled up fighting the Seven Years’ War with France, did the Continental Congress, after lengthy internal argument, vote unanimously, on July 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, to break from mother England, the most powerful country in the world. To say the least, it required courage of a kind we haven’t seen in Congress for a good long while.
“You must all hang together, or assuredly you shall all hang separately,” Benjamin Franklin reportedly told the Congress. It was literally true. Treason was punishable by death.
Adams probably worked harder for American independence than any other founder, but of course he wasn’t alone. Ironically, his “soul mate” in the work was, in many ways, his polar opposite. Adams was a frugal and hardworking Massachusetts Yankee, brash and straightforward in manner, stout in figure, and at times, when away on public service, barely able to support his family. By contrast, Thomas Jefferson was tall and elegant, a softspoken, wealthy Southern aristocrat from Virginia who was far more apt to listen than speak. He abhorred conflict.
Together, this bold Yankee and this refined Southerner built a vision for American government that still guides us. Both were careful thinkers and highly educated attorneys; both had a firm grasp on world history, the classics, religion and the works of great philosophers. And each was keenly aware of the misery much of mankind has suffered, over time, at the hand of tyrants.
It was no accident that, in the Declaration of Independence, eloquent Jefferson wrote of our unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – the very opposite of misery.
Down the road, both men would be caught up in political intrigue. Jefferson would defeat incumbent Adams in an 1800 presidential election filled with betrayals of the “House of Cards” nature – but not before they helped people-proof our new government as carefully as is possible. They wisely wove the rule of law, checks and balances and other such mechanisms into the very fabric of our democratic republic.
Adams understood the impact our break from England would have on history. He jubilantly wrote to Abigail:
“The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
The vote was taken July 2nd, but paperwork making it real was signed July 4th. The final official copy of the Declaration of Independence didn’t receive its 56 signatures until August.
Despite political rivalry, Adams and Jefferson, our second and third presidents, would resume their friendship, exchanging letters all their lives. Although Adams was 8 years older, both men would die on the same day, each in his own bed, in 1826 … on the 4th of July.
They couldn’t have imagined a world as complex as ours, but our founders understood that the greatest threat, and greatest asset, in our nation would always be us. And that hasn’t changed.