Every year, on July 4, Americans celebrate their nation's independence with parties, fireworks and a general sense that events more than 200 years ago have relevance today.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, Patrick Henry. The list of the "Founders" goes on and on, and their names are invoked to support or disparage causes all across the political spectrum, from national health insurance to national defense.
The words of the Declaration of Independence inspire even today, and individual phrases have been purloined for the names of TV shows, magazines and - again - to support or disparage causes. When people march to protest their government or their domination by foreign governments, it's almost a sure bet that someone has read that 18th century document or a translation, and has been inspired to protest, often at great personal cost.
There are many Web sites dedicated to the Declaration of Independence, giving the history of its drafting, inspirations that drove Jefferson's prose, the debate over the document and the vote to approve it.
Here are just a few:
The National Archives' Charters of Freedom exhibit offers a massive amount of information about the declaration, high-resolution images, a transcript and more.
At the Library of Congress's Web site Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents, there is also the story of how the document was drafted and the revelation that, like many writers, Jefferson was not too thrilled with the way his writing was at times changed by the other members of the "Committee of Five" who were given the job of working on the document. So not much has changed in 233 years.
Check out the Hypertext Declaration of Independence to see the familiar text that we all know and love, and then click on the links to see the original text and some discussion on who made the changes and why the changes were made.
See Jefferson's "original Rough draught" of the Declaration at this site. It is a PDF file with footnotes at the bottom to indicate the changes.
It's an annual tradition at National Public Radio to have its reporters and contributors read the Declaration of Independence on the air. The link takes you to the page for the 2009 reading.
We're in difficult economic times, America's power is being challenged all over the world and there is a sense that something valuable is being lost. There's a tendency today to tell people facing injustice to just "deal with it," "keep a stiff upper lip," "suck it up" and let the people in authority do what they will because they're in charge for a reason.
We should be grateful on this day, though that a group of men decided that they had had enough and that the time had come to write it all down and make a clean break.
The "tweets" from Iranian protesters, the battles in China to get around Internet news censorship and the efforts of people all over the world to express themselves and have control over their lives in the face of a government that believes that the people are chattel and should just keep quiet and obey authority are a sign that people want to be free, and that sometimes you have to fight for it.
Our Founding Fathers may have inspired them, and let's hope we are insightful enough to be inspired by their efforts amid the often brutal repression they are enduring. We have our freedom, and for that we're grateful, but it still needs to be protected and nurtured not only here but also around the world.
And as we have seen, sometimes freedom has to be fought for, and won, at great price.
One line of the Declaration that conjures up the fear the Founders fet -- and that people feel today -- is this one:
"He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation."
Had the Founders lost their nerve or yielded to fear, the world would be a much different place today.
On this Fourth of July, let's be thankful that a group of men determined to set the course for their own nation had the courage to take on the mightiest empire of the time and came out with honor and independence. Let's try to be worthy of their bravery, sacrifice and willingness to put everything on the line for a cause, not just on July 4, but every day.
It's the least we can do to honor those past, present and future who decide they want to be free, and fight to secure and defend that freedom.
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