Independence Day

Originally published July 3, 2008.

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”
-John Adams

Celebrating Independence Day is an opportunity to explore the spirit which led to the American Revolution. A valid argument exists that the War for Independence would never had happened were it not for The Age Enlightenment. The 1700s raised the idea that Reason could be used to define human existence and be a guiding principal for governance. Thomas Jefferson was well acquainted with the prior work of John Locke, the English philosopher, who proposed that God created the world based on natural laws–and these laws granted people freedom and liberty. It was the inspiration of this enlightened thought that led to the public declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The common man, the growing middle-class, and the people who would do most of the fighting and dying were not so easily persuaded by the soaring rhetoric offered by the more educated patriots of the time. The responsibility of emphasizing the importance of revolution was assumed by citizens like Thomas Paine with his aptly named pamphlet “Common Sense.” His arguments appealed to the pragmatism of the nation’s early founders, and some of his advice should be followed in the halls of Congress and State Legislatures; for even then, the subject of government debt was an issue common folk understood. Arguing the practical concerns that whatever debt accrued in the fight for independence would be well spent, Paine wrote: “But to expend millions for the sake of getting a few vile acts repealed… is unworthy the charge, and is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs from which they derive no advantage. Such a thought’s unworthy a man of honour, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a piddling politician.”

The leaders of the American Revolution without question had practical reasons which are highlighted in the well known Boston Tea Party, and the concept of no taxation without representation. But they were also aware of the historical nature of their rebellion, and this inspired wealthy citizens of stature to put at risk their lives and liberty for a cause they believed true. This inspiration from philosophy was not something that the foot soldier could rely on to summon strength in difficult times. In a pivotal point of the war, General George Washington faced the possibility of a serious mutiny by his officers who, besides suffering difficult battlefield conditions, were also being confronted with no pay to support their families.

This threatened mutiny had overtones that could have quickly destroyed the rebellion, as soldiers were being encouraged to not only refuse to fight, but “never sheathe your swords until you have obtained full and ample justice”. In effect becoming an army that would fight the new Union to receive its just due. Washington surprised his officers as they met to discuss the possibility of foregoing the fight for independence. He gave a speech outlining, in reasoned fashion, the fallacies of their logic; and, their was little appreciation for his presence or his speech. It was only at the end, whether by accident or plan, that Washington removed from his pocket a letter from Congress explaining the efforts to resolve the financial straits. Reading the letter, he paused for a moment to put on his reading glasses which many did not know he required. “Gentlemen,” said Washington, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

It was through the simple humanity of an old man, still fighting, still believing, that the American Revolution avoided being completely derailed. All the educated arguments, and all the soaring rhetoric could not explain what this simple gesture taught those officers. Looking with renewed understanding at this aging man who had led them through so many battles, Washington’s men were ashamed and many moved to tears. His officers casted a unanimous vote of support- allowing the revolution to go on to victory.

The Revolution in America was particularly difficult for residents of New Jersey. The Garden State had more engagements than any other state during the Revolutionary war. Strategically located between Philadelphia and New York, it was the scene of constant troop movements and supply transports. It also had an intense impact on the life of everyday citizens as a large portion of the population remained loyal to Great Britain. This created great conflict between residents who took up different sides; the division even spreading within families with two brothers fighting on opposing sides. The animosities between patriots and loyalists led to violence, robbery and murders throughout the state. Even after the war, emotional strains continued, the most famous being with Ben Franklin and his son who had been the Governor of New Jersey but eventually fled to England for safety. Perhaps it was New Jersey that Washington was referring to when he said, “”Unhappy it is, though, to reflect that a brother’s sword has been sheathed in a brother’s breast and that the once-happy plains of America are either to be drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?.”

Today it is rare that people refer to the holiday as Independence Day; it is simply called July 4th in honor of the vote ratifying The Declaration of Independence. July 4th has since become a date that incorporates other national memories due to planning or Providence.

Although it did not occur on July 4th, the Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1st thru July 3rd. It would be hard to argue that soldiers did not speak of and find inspiration in the approaching anniversary of the nation. It would be difficult to believe that the nobleness of their cause, and the salvation of the Union was not a topic of discussion in the midst of this bloody battle. It cannot be denied that on July 4th, with a battlefield covered with thousands of corpses, the citizens of Gettysburg did not reflect on the cost of freedom. This was summed up in the following November at the dedication of the cemetery where, following a two hour speech by the main orator, President Lincoln delivered a very short dedication stating, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

July 4th also became a date that often provided an inspirational moment for patriotic events. Dr. Smith wrote the lyrics of “America” while studying theology in 1832. A master linguist fluent in many languages, he had been approached by a local choral leader who had attained copies of German music and song that was being taught in German schools. It was the intention at the time to create a similar study of music for American children. The choral leader requested that Dr. Smith translate the lyrics, and/or write new ones that might be used for study in schools. He was intrigued by a patriotic song and decided to write his own. He did not know at the time that tune was the same as
that for the British, “God Save The King”. Later on he thought it an appropriate evolution for the music. The lyrics were written on scrap paper and laid nearly forgotten till he sent them off to the choral leader. Some weeks later, to his surprise, it was performed for the first time at a children’s celebration on July 4th.

America The Beautiful also has roots in the inspirational nature of July 4th. It was originally published on July 4th 1895, but it originally began to take shape as a poem in 1893. Professor Katherine Lee Bates was traveling by train from Massachusetts to Colorado on a summer teaching job. Her travels that summer took her through Chicago, The Great Plains, and to the top of Pike’s Peak. It is believed that her train schedule would have carried her through the wheat fields of Kansas on July 4th. In honor of this historic summer adventure that gave our country this song, Ms. Bates has elementary schools named in her honor, one in Massachusetts where her trip started, and the other in Colorado where it ended.

Below are two videos, the first contains America The Beautiful and the second America.