We’ve reached the 247th anniversary of one of history’s most extraordinary events while the rest of the world considered it to be a fool’s errand.
Actions by the 56 representatives serving in the Continental Congress in a hot Philadelphia July declared the 13 British colonies to be free and independent thus forming the United States of America.
They did so with about one third of the population opposed to the idea of separating themselves, “loyalists” as they were known, from their benefactor, King George III.
Reaction around the world was that the treasonous act would result in total failure and the hanging of those who had signed onto the document declaring complete separation from the tyranny of the King.
The war with the British had begun with the “shot heard around the world” on the Old North Bridge at Concord, Massachusetts, more than a year earlier and it was going badly. Predictions of failure of the rag tag colonial “army” up against the most powerful military force in the world looked to be professorial.
Yet, somehow, almost seven years later when the British surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, what would eventually become the most successful nation in human history was launched. It was, in terms of the percentage of the country’s population lost in battle, the costliest war in American history.
As it turned out, those 56 American patriots had set into motion a process that would 11 years later with the adoption of the US Constitution proved those ideas in the Declaration to be the most transformative of any society – ever.
It ultimately resulted in the greatest nation on earth.
So, who were these guys in 1776 who put their lives on the line … “We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes, And Our Sacred Honor,” and set all this into motion?
The oldest among them was the 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin who warned his fellow rebels that they must all stand together and be prepared to hang together if their initiative failed – a very likely outcome considering the historic risk they were taking with the mighty British forces.
The youngest, at age 26, was Edward Rutledge with 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson having been drafted among the five-member committee of Congress to author the document that would explain what they were doing and why.
The other members of the committee were Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and New York’s Robert Livingston.
Among the original language was a provision dealing with the ultimate abolition of slavery that would not survive as it would take the unanimous approval of all 13 colonies lest the document be cast into the trash bin of history. The southern colonies most dependent on slave labor for their economies where the holdouts.
In the end, as described by PBS, their actions deemed treasonous, some were imprisoned and treated as “high value prisoners,” while others, who enjoyed great wealth in their prime, died penniless.
The last among them to die was Maryland’s Charles Carroll at the age of 95 in 1832.
So, when we annually celebrate our nation’s freedom, we should know details of its origins and a reminder to remain true to our founding principles and values as the freest people on earth.
Those 56 patriots placed their “firm reliance on the protection of Devine Providence” and ultimately, were rewarded with the success of that “fool’s errand” when it all began.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor.