July 4th’s hidden history is darker than you’d expect

Original Article

July 4th, also known as Independence Day, is a much more light-hearted and festive American holiday — with cookouts, parades, beach and boating parties and fireworks — 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 in 1776, they were in fact signing their death warrants.

Great Britain was the most powerful nation on Earth, and the 13 American colonies were poor and disunited. The British Crown considered a declaration of independence an act of treason, which meant that all signatories would be punishable by death.

No one expected us to win

It is a little-known historical fact that for this reason, combined with the low odds of prevailing against the British Army and Navy, 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 of Independence on July 4, 1776, copies of the document displayed only two signatures: John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress.

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. General George Washington’s troops felt utterly overwhelmed, and their retreat was accompanied by dejected morale.

The Continental Congress didn’t begin displaying all 56 signatories of the Declaration until Washington’s success at the Battle of Trenton in December 1776 — a remarkable victory, considering the odds were no better than they were in the prior New York engagement.

All they could do is trust the Almighty

Perceiving this could be a turning point and harbinger of ultimate military victory, and perhaps with apparent taking to heart of the last sentence in the Declaration that “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, aka the Founding Fathers, began posting the fully signed copies of the Declaration throughout the 13 colonies in January 1777.

If we take the Declaration of Independence seriously in terms of the words selected to mobilize support for the cause, 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 ultimate success in war for independence, but the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that the rights of the people come from God, and not the state. And since rights come from God, they are absolute and “inalienable.”

The truly revolutionary idea we forgot

The state’s governing authority was to be limited by that first principle and thus should 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 inalienable rights of its people.

The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate on July 4, is not just what gave political birth to the United States, with its unique emphasis on limited government and the freedom for its citizens. It was these simple ideas put into practice that also enabled the nation’s ascendance from colonial poverty to global superpower in a little more than 200 years.

However, during the last 50 years, America has increasingly been on a course of denial and retreat from the principles that made her the envy of the world for generations. May this July 4th 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. It’s 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.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.