As is the case with many of our holidays, we seem to have lost sight of the original meaning of Independence Day over the years.
It was a radical move when leaders from the 13 colonies got together and created the Declaration of Independence back in 1776.
Old Ben Franklin (who was 70 at the time) wasn’t kidding when he said, “We must indeed hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Britain would no doubt like to have crushed the upstart colonists like bugs, and given the chance, would probably have hung the signatories of the document for treason. That was how they handled differences of opinion in the old days, especially when one of the parties involved in the dispute happened to be a government.
The British government did a lot of things that annoyed the colonists, and the colonists did a few things that irritated the British government.
As in many a relationship, communication became a problem. Britain couldn’t understand why the colonies wouldn’t just do what it wanted them to do. The colonists felt that the British government was taking them for granted, and just didn’t listen to them anymore.
Parliament imposed the Stamp Act in 1765, and that didn’t sit too well with the folks over here. They saw it as a form of taxation without representation, and they didn’t like it. They stewed on it for a while, and eventually kicked up such a fuss that the act was repealed in 1766.
The relief didn’t last long, though, and in 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which effectively gave the East India company a monopoly on tea sales in the colonies. Tea was a big deal here in the days before Caribou and Starbucks came along. The colonists decided they had had about enough of these shenanigans, and a few of the boys demonstrated their displeasure by dressing up like Native Americans, boarding some ships and dumping a whole lot of tea into the Boston Harbor (it is unclear why they wanted to throw the Indians under the bus).
In 1774, the Brits responded by imposing a series of Restraining Acts (commonly referred to as Coercive Acts in Britain). The colonists called them the Intolerable Acts, which shows what they thought of them. In effect, the acts poured gasoline on the spark of revolution that had been ignited by the Stamp Act.
The acts were an attempt by the British government to whip the colonies into shape.
It didn’t work.
It turned out to be rather like poking a stick into a hornets’ nest, and they ended up with a revolution on their hands.
The colonists were especially provoked because they came all the way over here to escape tyranny and enjoy a taste of freedom, and the next thing they knew, the British government was putting the screws to them again.
In 1775 in Virginia, Patrick Henry spoke out against British rule, saying “give me liberty or give me death.”
That sounds a bit dramatic today, but the colonists were pretty serious about their freedom.
The founding fathers considered old King George III and his sidekick, Lord North (the prime minister), to be big bullies, and wished they would just leave them alone.
Signing the Declaration of Independence, which stated that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” was a very public way of thumbing their noses at the monarch across the ocean.
Monarchs hate that.
Britain continued to try to enforce its laws, and the colonists became more and more open in their defiance.
Well, one thing led to another, and we had us a revolutionary war.
The Declaration of Independence was one of the key turning points that led to the revolution, and ultimately, to the founding of the new nation.
Today, July 4 has come to mean picnics, cookouts, parades, and a long summer weekend.
But, when we are kicking back enjoying the fireworks displays this July 4, we would do well to remember the fireworks that started it all.
The colonists took their freedom seriously, and they were willing to take risks, fight, and even die, to earn and preserve it.
They believed in the concept of government that Mr. Lincoln so eloquently described some four score and seven years later as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
This country went through a lot to throw off the yoke of tyranny.
Unfortunately, over the years, some of the people we have elected to represent us have demonstrated a bit of a tyrannical streak of their own.
Too often, they have forgotten about those they are sworn to represent, and have instead looked after their own or other special interests, and they have followed their own agendas.
It is up to us to remind them why they were elected, and hold them accountable when they let us down.
We should also remember old Ben’s comments about hanging together.
The world is every bit as volatile today as it was back in 1776, and there are perhaps even more dire threats out there.
As a nation, we need leaders who will work together to forge solutions for the common good, rather than engaging in partisan bickering and gamesmanship.
Our forefathers would have expected this, and we should demand it.
There was a certain amount of chicanery and political maneuvering in Franklin’s day, just as there is today, but we have much better means of keeping track of what our elected officials are up to than the colonists had, and it is up to us to pay attention. No one else is going to do it for us.
If we fail to remain vigilant, we could end up with a bunch of unmitigated scoundrels running the show (some might say we are getting close already), and that is just what the founding fathers (and mothers) were trying to avoid.
The fireworks of those early days, and the reasons behind them, might be worth remembering as we celebrate this Independence Day.