"We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
That's some deep stuff. The men who made this pledge did so as part of the Declaration of Independence. Their signatures on this document constituted an act of rebellion against the most powerful nation in the world. They’d most likely be declared traitors, which subjected them to the possibility of arrest and opened the door to financial ruin. All too often, we consign these historical figures to the pseudo-real realm of ancient history. When we view their words and actions, we do so through a lens akin to reading a fairy tale. We forget that these were real men with real lives, real families, real property and real reputations to lose.
These weren't just empty words. The Signers were declaring a rebellion against the powers that be. The King's Government wasn't just the most powerful nation in the world at the time, they were also the legitimate government in the colonies. Think about that, not as a long-ago story that you know the ending to, but as the real-life situation it was to the Signers. Success for the newly formed United States of America was far from a guarantee. If anything, it was highly unlikely.
Many of the men who signed would go on to fulfill their pledge to the extreme. William Ellery lost his fortune. He was a rich man when he signed, but destitute when he died. Thomas Nelson, Jr noted that the British had taken cover in his family home at the Battle of Yorktown. He encouraged General Washington to open fire on the building with artillery and later died poor. Countless Signers would find their honor maligned as well. Many colonists weren't for the rebellion. Contemporary Americans know all too well how contentious political issues can be. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that fomenting a war might have caused damage to the founders’ reputations. A declaration for it no doubt cost countless friendships and business relationships. It most certainly caused the split of many families as well.
To examine the lives of the founders gives, perhaps, a hint of the sacrifice made to birth our nation. But such an examination really doesn’t do justice to the subject. Examining the lives of these men only brushes the surface of the pain and suffering that accompanied America’s birth. Countless soldiers suffered indescribable pain as a rag tag army locked horns with the most powerful military body on earth. Many of them made victory possible with the sacrifice of their very lives. While we often think of the “founders” as the men who signed the declaration or those who composed our Constitution, the soldiers who didn’t make their way into the history books are equally deserving of the title.
It's so important that we recognize the very real, very human nature of the nation's founders, for a simple reason: freedom isn't free. It also doesn’t last perpetually without real effort to maintain it. The formation of the United States took very real sacrifice from very real people. Folks gave up the financial dreams they’d worked their whole lives for. Men left their families. Women raised children alone when fathers didn’t return.
The nascent idea of freedom, the concept that a government could (and should) serve the needs of its people (instead of those in positions of power) was precious to them. They were willing to lay it all on the line for this concept of a government that Lincoln would later describe as “…of the people, by the people, for the people."
How should we feel when we consider these sacrifices? Proud? Honored?
These are all appropriate reactions. But we should probably feel somewhat ashamed too. Despite all our differences, the one trait Americans generally share is an apathy for our government. Sure, we're happy to complain. Sometimes, we might even be brave enough to express our beliefs at a dinner party or in some social media post. But how many of us really give the concept the credit it deserves? How many make our freedom a priority that we fight for even if it costs our lives, fortunes, or sacred honor? How many of us really sacrifice to protect the freedoms the founders sacrificed for?
I'm not talking about military sacrifice. We Americans do a fine job at coming through in the hard times. When an outside threat rears its ugly head, there's never a shortage of patriots willing to offer their blood in Uncle Sam's defense. No, I'm talking about taking advantage of the system the fathers created for us; about making its preservation a priority in our busy lives. The founders knew that the best way to ensure lasting freedom was to create a government by the people and for the people. They purposely designed an interactive government, where average joes could (and should) get involved. They feared the consolidation of power. They made an effort to disperse it throughout various levels of government and across different branches. They leaned heavily on the idea that we should be able to elect (or un-elect) the people that run the government, so that leaders would always be accountable to those they led.
They did all this to guarantee against rule by the elite. That's what makes it so amazing that we take such little advantage of this system. Many of us can rattle off the latest stats from our favorite sports team, yet few can name our Supreme Court Justices. We can recite the most worthless of details about the lives of reality TV stars, but know precious little about the senator or congressman we voted for in the last election. We'll rearrange our schedules to see a Friday night sporting event, but how often do we attend our local city council meeting? Will we forgo a night out with friends to see what local school board is up to?
In the absence of an active citizenry, tyranny tends to take hold. These freedoms that we make such little use of are precious. People around the world would (and often do) die for them.
July the 4th is the day we celebrate our independence. It’s fitting that a celebration should include fireworks, barbecues and fanfare. But we should dedicate an equal amount of time to quiet consideration of what each of us can do to ensure these precious freedoms are still here for our children. It would be a shame if the system our forebears gave so much for were to vanish; not from war or challenge, but from our own apathy.