American History Blog Thursday, July 2, 2020
On July 4, 1776, the most powerful armed forces in the world were on the American continent. They were there to subdue rebels — colonists who believed they were entitled to the full rights of Englishmen. Subdue, indeed. The British Redcoats were paid men hired to defend the King and his honor. They were not beyond committing atrocities against those who were treasonous. The National Heritage Center for Constitutional Studies asserts that the favored punishment for treason was “hanging to the point of unconsciousness, then being revived, disemboweled, their body parts boiled in oil and their ashes scattered into the wind.” So when the fifty-six brave men who signed the Declaration of Independence gathered in Philadelphia and mutually pledged to each other in that document “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor,” they understood that they were taking enormous risks. These were wealthy men of great accomplishment — incredibly gifted men who had very much to lose. But they dove into the frightening unknown together, pledging everything that was precious to them for the prospect of a gruesome and painful death. Why? They did it for something extraordinary. They did it for an idea.
The idea for which they so bravely risked everything was not just any idea; it was revolutionary. It would bring down a king. It is eternal and is an idea which is true for every human being ever born. Eventually, it provided a guidepost for American slaves who desired freedom; it provided the fundamental philosophical underpinning of Abraham Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War; it provided the moral force behind Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s efforts to get American women the right to vote; it was the centerpiece of Martin Luther King’s “I Had A Dream” speech; and it eventually was embraced by brave men and women desperate to loosen the cruel grip of Communism behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. It is beyond a grand idea. The American Founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for an idea that is sublime.
The idea is a “self-evident truth.” When we are born, we all are the same. We are “created equal”, in that at birth we have the same human nature and nothing else, whether we are born in the finest of palaces or in a gutter on the street. Our human nature is bestowed on us at birth by “Nature and Nature’s God.” Government cannot take away our nature; it can only suppress it. Some of the characteristics of our nature that make us equal are that we think freely, speak freely, and worship or not worship how we wish; we assemble with friends and those of common interests; we defend ourselves and others; and we acquire property for the betterment and enjoyment of our lives. Indeed, the Bill of Rights eventually enshrined such characteristics of human nature as being beyond the reach of government.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence were not finished. They radically asserted to the King of England — and to the whole world — that governments are formed by men for their own benefit. The purpose of government is to keep men free, not to rule over them. And when government loses its way, it is the right and the duty of the people to throw off that government and to create a new one for their benefit.
The perfectible ideals enshrined on our nation’s first July 4th were imperfectly applied, as millions in America would remain enslaved. Nonetheless, the ideals of the Declaration of Independence apply to all men and women, because they undoubtedly are true for all men and women. And though fierce and bloody struggles were necessary, those ideals eventually have been applied more broadly in this nation.
We celebrate the Fourth of July not just because the United States of America was born, but because those great men who risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor did so for the benefit of every human being thereafter. We do so because those brave idealists forged a new world that day in 1776 on the revolutionary idea that each individual is his own king, which is what makes each of us free.
About the Author
Ron Berutti, Esq. is a Partner at Weiner Law Group LLP in the Litigation Group. In addition to his love of the law, he has loved American history since the third grade, when he was taught about the American Revolution and the then-upcoming Bicentennial. He is most interested in the nation’s founding, and in 19th Century American history. Ron has read widely on the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, and has been published on the topic of Abraham Lincoln’s advice for lawyers. Not only is Ron interested in the history, for history’s sake, but he believes that the issues faced by the nation before the 20th Century still remain vital in many ways, and continue to impact our lives every day.