SANTA FE — Why does America celebrate its independence on the Fourth of July? Mainly because it works.
It isn’t the day we achieved our independence. That was November 3, 1783. It isn’t the date of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. That was over a year before July 4, 1776. And it isn’t the date of the last decisive battle.
We chose the day the Declaration of Independence was signed because that was a magical moment that unquestionably led to the foregone conclusion of American independence.
Or so the story goes. Actually, it was much more difficult than that. Members of the Continental Congress seriously debated whether there was much chance of winning a revolution against the crown.
The rebels had a rag tag army, not much of a navy and no alliance with any country that could be of help.
But the decision to proceed was made and most of them signed a document pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to each other. They knew they were guilty of treason and, if captured, were likely to be hanged.
Were it not for some free lance help by European military officers such as Lafayette, von Steuben, de Kalb and others, they would have been in serious trouble.
For the past several years, friends have sent me an essay describing the fate of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, suggesting that I use it in a July 4 column. Somehow the fate of the signers seemed too grim to be accurate.
So, this year, I Googled “Declaration of Independence signers” and quickly learned that the essay has made quite an impact. No authorship is claimed but it appears to be a rewrite of an essay by Rush Limbaugh Jr., father of the radio personality.
The fates claimed for the 56 signers all had grains of truth but all were considerably overstated. Nine of them did die during the Revolutionary War, but none of them at the hands of the British.
Many did have their homes ransacked, vandalized and occupied by the British but that was because they were in the path of the war. Theirs were mostly big homes that were likely targets for both sides to use as local headquarters or plundered for supplies.
Many lost much of their property and had to sell assets after the war to cover debts but none of them died in rags, as claimed.
In short, all the signers took a huge risk and had every reason to believe that they might well be hanged. Today we should all take time to honor their courageous act. And we also should honor all the colonists who endured hardships and losses, including loss of life, in the cause of the revolution.
The actual stories of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are sufficiently compelling without embellishment. In our comfortable society of today, it is difficult to imagine the hardships they all had to endure. We easily could call that “our greatest generation.”
Biographies have been written for all the signers of the Declaration of Independence. I’m sure they are all good reads. If you don’t have time for that, my suggestion is a recent book by Roswell’s Dave Clary, “Adopted Son,” describing the friendship between Gen. George Washington and the young Marquis de Lafayette and the wide-ranging influence it had on themselves and their countries.
This also is a good day to pick up the Declaration of Independence and read it again. It is a brilliant and inspired argument for overthrowing tyranny that captured imaginations not just here but in Europe and the rest of the Americas.
Upon winning our independence, we became the world’s first revolutionary power, making us the oldest revolutionary government on earth, with the oldest written constitution.
Americans have much to be proud of on this day. Let us not forget the sacrifices of our forbearers to obtain freedoms we now sometimes want to limit.