In the midst of all the food, fireworks, music and other activities celebrating the Fourth of July, we should all pause to remember the true meaning of this most uniquely American holiday.
The Fourth of July is Independence Day, the day the United States of America declared its independence from the British empire. We all too often take for granted that declaration assuming America’s victory in its war for independence was inevitable and the freedoms we enjoy as a result of that victory a certainty.
Five years would pass between the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia and the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to George Washington. Those five years were hard ones with many reversals of fortune for the cause of American independence. At several points it seemed the American patriots were fighting a lost cause and that their country was doomed to remain a collection of oppressed and exploited colonies of the British empire.
Even after Cornwallis surrendered in 1781, parts of America would remain under British occupation until 1783. They remained a significant threat to American independence as the young republic struggled to find its footing. The threat to American independence didn’t end in 1783 either, as the British, operating from Canada and, in many cases, aided and abetted by their American Indian allies continued to harass their former colonies on the western frontier. Similar harassment was visited upon American shipping on the high seas by the Royal Navy.
It would be a long time indeed before American independence would be fully secured and a longer time still before England went from being our most dangerous enemy to our most faithful ally. During that time America would transform itself from a small nation constantly menaced by the imperial powers of Europe to a superpower that would repeatedly rescue and defend that continent — and the rest of the world — from the forces of tyranny.
That was all still in the future in 1776 and by no means a sure thing. The transformation of America from a collection of rebellious colonies to a globe-spanning champion of freedom that is the envy of the world could have been aborted at any time, especially in the beginning.
It did not happen because of the courage and sacrifice of the men and women of the Founding Generation who risked everything to gain for themselves and succeeding generations the blessings of freedom. They had no guarantee of success in 1776 and in the years that followed it seemed they were doomed to failure. They did not give up, however, because they would have liberty and, if not, they preferred to die.
That determination to live free or die is why the Founding Generation prevailed in its struggle for independence and why America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. If we, the beneficiaries of that great sacrifice, are to retain the independence and the freedoms we enjoy today, then we must, first, be eternally vigilant in the protection of our liberties and, second, be as willing as our ancestors to give our all in the defense of government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Food, fireworks, music and other fun activities associated with the Fourth of July are wonderful and we wish everyone a joyous time.
Yet we must always be mindful that freedom — especially our freedom as Americans — is not a gift but must be earned and jealously guarded generation after generation.
So this Fourth of July, amidst all the celebrations, let us stop to remember the sacrifices that made this day possible and commit our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor to upholding the legacy of freedom bequeathed us on that first Independence Day.
Charles A. Jensen