On July 4th, we celebrate one of the most solemn days in American history, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was a transforming moment in the history of North America, which changed the British colonies into a self-determining nation.
It is easy today, 239 years later, amidst the celebratory parties, barbecues, and fireworks displays, to forget that American independence was not inevitable and did not happen overnight. It was a hard-won victory that required a struggle of more than 30 years and great personal sacrifice from many men and women. And on July 4, 1776, that victory still hung in the balance.
At first, the future citizens of the United States wanted only to preserve their rights and liberties as British citizens. The colonists strongly opposed the acts of trade enacted by the British Council in 1760, authorizing, among other things, search warrants on any pretext, and the Stamp Act of 1765, which levied heavy taxes on the colonists without their own parliamentary representation, seeing in these laws a violation of the rights guaranteed by British common law. When it became clear that insisting on their rights would not be enough, those opposed to tyranny took action on that sultry July day in 1776 and declared independence from Great Britain. The gravity of this act was not lost on any present at that meeting of the Second Continental Congress. The Declaration, as far as the British sovereign was concerned, was a deliberate act of treason and the signatories were all in danger of their lives. Benjamin Franklin quipped to his fellow representatives at the signing, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The War of Independence marks a second stage, although it began 15 months before the signing of the Declaration, at the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and ended in 1782 with the signing of the Treaty of Peace in Paris. The third and final stage reached its conclusion when Congress ratified the Constitution in 1789, bringing into being a new country and a new kind of government.
A contest of principle
But the great work of the American struggle for independence was not winning the conflict of arms. The birth of liberty was a contest of principle. At each stage, the struggle for independence was met by individuals, providentially prepared with minds and spirits trained to the issues of the times. The Declaration of Independence was the standard heroically waved in this war of ideas because it annulled the idea that men were subjects to any tyrannical powers and affirmed the natural right to be self-governed. The tie to British rule was dissolved by one common act, the signing of that document. It made Americans into members of a distinct community in relation to each other, bound by the laws of nature and the Union. It was the opening to a new era in the science of government and in the history of mankind.
From “John Quincy Adams on the American Revolution,” The Christian History of the American Revolution, Consider and Ponder