The Ideas Behind July 4th

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Most Americans celebrating the July 4th holiday today underappreciate or have forgotten that it was the sheer power of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence that was the determining factor for the Americans in winning the War of Independence.

Additionally, most today have no idea how somber the occasion was when those 56 members of the Continental Congress committed themselves to signing the Declaration in July of 1776. They knew that taking pen to paper as a signatory was for each a death warrant for being a traitor to Great Britain. Thus, the first Declaration of Independence that was signed on July 4, did not have signatures from the committed delegates. Instead, there were two signatures on that first document: John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress and Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress.

It took more than two weeks for the Declaration to be “engrossed” — that is written on parchment in a clear hand. Many of the 56 delegates to the Continental Congress who had agreed to sign the document did so on August 2, but there were new delegates who replaced some six of the original delegates and there were an additional seven delegates who could not sign until many weeks later. At that time Great Britain was the dominant power in the western world, and the reality was that the untrained and underequipped American colonial army had almost no chance of defeating the British army and navy — the most formidable military force in the world. So the 56-signatory Declaration was held in abeyance to protect the lives and property of the signers for release at a later time.

General George Washington was in New York preparing its defense, when on July 6, 1776 a courier from Philadelphia arrived to deliver a copy of the two-signature Declaration of Independence that had been agreed upon by the Continental Congress several days before. Deeply moved by the power of the Declaration’s words, Washington ordered copies sent to all generals in the Continental Army and that chaplains be hired for every regiment to assure that, “every officer and man, will endeavor so to live and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier, defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.” Like the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration was a true covenant of absolute commitment, with its last sentence invoking: “…with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

A few days later, on July 9, after the meaning of the Declaration had sunk in, Washington called a halt to his troops’ battle preparations, and announced a respite and gathering in order to read the Declaration to his soldiers and townspeople. The crowd hustled down to what is now lower Manhattan where they could see the British ships at anchor in New York harbor. The occasion was also marked by a few rowdies pulling down a monument to King George III, severing the statue’s head.

Under Washington’s command were about 18-19,000 men making up what was a rag-tag colonial army. They faced about 35,000 professionally trained and well-equipped British and German mercenary Hessian soldiers who had arrived on some 150 British ships. When conflict finally broke out on Long Island on August 27th, Washington’s men were quickly and soundly thrashed and forced to retreat. Washington’s troops would face two more devastating routs in the next two months, with nearly six times more casualties than the British suffered — forced to leave New York in total and abject defeat.

Washington’s greatest challenge then in marching in November to Philadelphia was maintaining the morale, confidence, and loyalty of his greatly diminished and discouraged troops, numbering only about 3,500 at that time. But for a gallant few, nearly all thought the Revolution was lost.

Encamped near Philadelphia on the bank of the Delaware River, Washington pondered his next move. His faith and belief in the cause of independence sustained him, but he knew at this point only a decisive victory could bring about a reversal of fortune. That prayer was answered when reliable intelligence from a spy revealed that a large contingent of Hessians under British command were occupying Trenton only nine miles away. Washington immediately set to planning the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night and the march to Trenton that followed. The surprise attack that ensued early the next morning was a resounding victory. And after another intelligence tip a few days later, Washington made a second successful surprise attack on the British encamped in nearby Princeton.

Perceiving this dual miracle as a harbinger of more victories to come, and perhaps with many recognizing the power of providence and the vital importance in the ideas manifest in the Declaration, the Continental Congress ordered the reprinting and dissemination to all the colonies of the now famous 56-signature Declaration of Independence on January 18, 1777 — some six months after the original document had been drafted and resoundingly approved.

On balance, the colonial army lost more battles than it won, but the persistence of Washington over the next four and three-quarter years and the victory at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 brought an end to the war, the surrender of the British, and the complete independence of the United States.

Washington remains the greatest president in the minds of many because of his fearless courage in battle, his incredible perseverance against unfathomable odds, and his attendant faith in the providence that provided protection and empowered him to achieve the impossible.

As we reflect on the meaning of July 4th this year, we should celebrate and take heart that the same good ideas and principles — natural God-given rights and obligations — expressed in the Declaration of Independence — that inspired Washington are as real today as they were then. And when these ideas and principles are acted upon by enough people, good will triumph over evil.

Scott Powell is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute and author of the forthcoming Post Hill Press book, Rediscovering America, which develops the ideas in this article across 400 years of American history. You can reach him at scottp@discovery.org

Image: Thomas Cizauskas

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