We call this patriotic holiday Independence Day, the Birthday of America or simply the 4th of July. It celebrates a political act by 56 men who literally risked their lives and fortunes and pledged their sacred honor in issuing one of the greatest documents in human history: The Declaration of Independence.
Idealists would have us believe that all these men were noble visionaries dedicated to the great principles declared in that document. Cynics would paint a darker picture dominated by shadows of personal greed and economic ambition. Undoubtedly, the representatives of the thirteen colonies that joined together in a momentous act of treason against England were a mixed lot with complicated motives. They included John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two future Presidents who, in a bizarre tribute to symbolism, both died on the same day–the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. The list of signers also includes the pragmatic philosopher who called himself a printer, Benjamin Franklin, the rabble-rousing revolutionary Samuel Adams, the wealthy merchant John Hancock, and more than four dozen lesser known citizen-politicians–mostly farmers, merchants and lawyers.
But whatever their secret intents, these men genuinely and consciously engaged in a grand act of moral courage that resulted in the realization of a political ideal that still stands as a great symbol of democracy, the most inherently ethical political philosophy known to man.
And this courage was real, not merely rhetorical. Nine of the 56 died during the Revolution. Five were captured by the British. Two were wounded in battle and two others saw their sons killed or captured during the war. Eighteen had their homes looted or burned.
So, when we barbecue and watch fireworks, we ought to take a moment to remember that what we have is built on a foundation of moral courage and character.