Our nation is built on courage.
As they met in the Philadelphia, they knew they would be branded as traitors to the Crown. They knew that their families would never be safe unless the unthinkable happened—unless they managed to defeat the most powerful Empire in the world. The Continental Army, made up of Virginia farm boys, Massachusetts merchants, Delaware laborers, and others from around the Colonies, were in retreat and disarray. Victory looked unlikely.
Yet these men refused to surrender. They had tried to make peace. The olive branch was slapped aside. They had tried to address the depredations imposed by the tyranny of the Crown. Their concerns were dismissed. Yet, they had such a burning commitment to liberty and freedom, they were willing to sacrifice their homes and themselves to create a Nation.
On July 4, those men voted to break from the Crown. They approved the statement drafted by Mr. Jefferson that boldly stated that all men were created equal. There would be no turning back now. They moved forward, with conviction that they, and the world, deserved to be free.
Our nation is sustained on courage.
Again, in Pennsylvania. But, this time in fields in the southern part of the state, just outside a small college town. Just a few weeks before, the countryside was a picture of pristine beauty. But, now on July 4, 1863, the fields were covered in dead and dying. The Battle of Gettysburg had ended and Lee’s army, suffering its first real defeat, was marching back across the border. Combat had raged for three days prior in places like Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, and the infamous field across which General Pickett’s army vanished in the face of northern fire. Now, on July 4, with the battle over, rain began to fail. Heavy rain, as if heaven itself wept for the dead.
The Battle of Gettysburg marked the turn of a war meant to preserve the nation created in Philadelphia and a war, more broadly, that marked the crescendo of a debate about what the Declaration meant. Before that first week of July, the continued existence of the United States was very much in doubt. War had waged for two years. The public was growing tired of casualty lists and dismembered souls returning from battle. The rebels’ spirits were high and confidence growing. Things were at the tipping point.
But, the Union soldiers dug in at Gettysburg. They held on against all that Lee could throw against them. They called up their courage as best they could and held fast. Men from the 1st Minnesota and the 20th Maine and countless other places. And they won the day.
Our nation is enhanced by courage, especially of those who are dedicated to see the promises of the Declaration realized for all Americans.
It was July 4, 1964. They had been beaten and hosed and jailed. Dogs had attacked them. Their fellow citizens had thrown rocks and bottles at them. They had been lynched and shot and bombed. All so that they could eat where they wanted, sit at the same lunch counter as other Americans, vote without fear of reprisal, and send their children to the same schools as other citizens. It had been denied them for so long by legal means. But, the law would not deny them any longer. On that July 4, no one would blame the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement from taking in their victory. Two days earlier, President Johnson had signed the most comprehensive and sweeping Civil Rights bill in our Nation’s history. It was a victory for the Cause, a victory only made possible by the courage of Rosa Parks and Emmitt Till and Dr. King and many, many others whose dedication to the promises of the Declaration remained true even as the very nation created by that document had denied them those rights.
July 4th is not only about our Independence but it is also about the courage of those men and women who have toiled and endured and risen as our Nation continues to grow in liberty and freedom. The United States is an idea created by courage, is sustained by courage, and is enhanced by courage. It is a simple but radical idea that all men are created equal that has sustained us and will continue to sustain us into the future as we fight to apply the promise of the Declaration to all Americans.
As we celebrate with our cookouts and fireworks and pool parties, let us pause for a moment and remember this. All that we are, and all that have been, and all that we are to become as a Nation is due to the unimaginable courage of our fellow Americans to create, preserve, and improve this, the greatest nation on the Earth.
Happy Independence Day.