July Fourth — with its cookouts, parades, outdoor parties and fireworks — is a much more lighthearted and festive American holiday than other patriotic holidays, such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Most people forget that when the 56 members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they were signing their death warrants.
At the time, Great Britain was the most powerful nation on earth, while the 13 American colonies were poor and disunited. The British crown deemed the issuance of a declaration of independence an act of treason, which meant that all its signatories would be punishable by death.
It is a little-known fact that for this reason, combined with the low odds of prevailing against the British, the identities of the 56 members of the Continental Congress who committed to separating from England were not made immediately public. For the first six months following the declaration’s signing, copies of the document displayed only two signatures: those of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress.
Indeed, things looked grim for the Continental Army in the first few months of the war for independence. Sir William Howe successfully led the British army to defeat the colonial army and capture New York City by September 1776. Gen. George Washington’s troops felt utterly overwhelmed and made a dejected retreat.
What prompted the Continental Congress to begin displaying all 56 signatures can be traced to Washington’s rebound three months later, at the Battle of Trenton — a remarkable victory considering the odds there were no better than they had been in New York. The Founding Fathers realized that this could be a turning point, a harbinger of ultimate military victory. So, perhaps taking to heart the last sentence of the declaration — “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” — the Continental Congress began posting fully signed copies throughout the 13 colonies in January 1777.
If we take seriously the words selected in the Declaration of Independence to mobilize support for the cause, we can see that the Founding Fathers placed everything on the line and trusted the Almighty for the results. As the esteemed British historian, Paul Johnson, notes: “The Americans were overwhelmingly churchgoing, much more so than the English, whose rule they rejected. There is no question that the Declaration of Independence was, to those who signed it, a religious as well as a secular act.”
What was truly revolutionary was not just the colonies’ ultimate success in their war for independence, but the colonies’ assertion in the Declaration of Independence that the rights of the people come from God and not the state. And because rights come from God, they are absolute and “inalienable,” and the state’s authority has to be limited to not infringe those rights.
No other nation in history, perhaps with the exception of ancient Israel, was founded in such a way that the sovereignty of the state was limited by its people’s inalienable rights. And this simple idea put into practice enabled the United States’ ascendance from colonial poverty to global superpower in a little more than 200 years.
Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, America has increasingly been on a course of retreat from the principles that have made it the envy of the world for generations.
May this July Fourth be a special time, perhaps a turning point, to renew those ideas and convictions that brought the Founders together. It’s not about being reactionary or turning the clock back, but rather about aligning our thinking and action with the ideas, principles, courage and faith that enabled prior generations of Americans to advance and prosper more than any other people in human history.