"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not." John Adams (The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Harvard University Press, 1975, 142).
Today we tend to think of the Fourth of July as a day off from work, an occasion for shooting off fireworks, having a backyard barbecue, or climbing in our cars and visiting distant friends and relatives. Hardly anybody harks back to that momentous day, what it meant, or how it affects us down to this very day.
What we mark on July Fourth is the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an astonishing event when a handful of men of different backgrounds and different colonies with no organized armed force at their disposal, came together and wrote a document that in effect, told the mighty British empire to bug off and leave them and their colonies alone.
It was what must be seen as a foolhardy act. They defied a monarch and his government with the finest and most powerful army on the face of the earth, knowing full well what the consequences would be if they failed in achieving independence from Britain. With Adams they understood the "Toil and Blood and Treasure," it would cost them "to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. "
They had no army of their own, only poorly armed, trained, and equipped local militias. No consensus among the people of the various colonies as to the wisdom of their act, and no national treasury to draw upon to finance an armed struggle. It was truly a case of David vs. Goliath - except in his case at least David had a sling shot and only a single foe.
As they foresaw, the might of the British empire came crashing down on them and for six long years the forces under General George Washington bled and died in a long series of disheartening defeats.
The colonialists were by no means united. A large number, the so-called Tories , backed the British crown. When New York and Philadelphia, were occupied by the British army, some of the more elite residents fell all over themselves to ingratiate themselves with to Redcoat officers, bowing and scraping before them and entertaining them lavishly.
In the South, a brutally vicious civil war that laid waste vast areas erupted between the supporters of the revolution and those people loyal to the Crown.
Many of those who supported the revolution paid dearly, yet they remained steadfast throughout those dismal years and to them we owe an enormous debt. Without their courage and endurance, we'd still be residents of the 13 British colonies.
Between 1775 and 1783, about 8000 members of Washington's army died in combat and another 17,000 died from starvation, disease and other causes. At the time, those deaths represented a measurable part of the total population. It was a high price to pay for independence - and an uncertain future. At its end American was still divided along the lines of the British colonial system. America was by no means a nation, and it would take a long time, and a terrible civil war, for it to truly become one.
But they were free to decide their future for themselves. What they decided would be what America would become. Never in the entire world's history had a citizenry attained the power to govern themselves. It was a revolutionary idea. And it worked.
That's what the Fourth of July is all about. It sparked a war that ended in a spectacular victory of what Kenneth Roberts admiringly called a "Rabble in Arms" over a superbly trained battle hardened army, a long struggle to construct a government of the people, by the people and for the people as Lincoln would put it, and to put aside local allegiances and attain a national identity.
It's important that we recognize all this before we start celebrating a holiday that means a lot more than fireworks and barbecues. What those men did in Philadelphia on July 2nd, 1776 gave us the most precious gift they had to give us, and one we would have to earn over and over again, liberty! It was just the beginning. And it's still going on.
On the Fourth of July we need to answer once again in word and in deed the age-old question the people answered then: are we fit to be free? They answered it by putting their lives and the fortunes on the line. They risked everything to win for us the gift they left us. We owe it to them to follow their example.
As John Adams put it - it should be "commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty."