On the surface, this may not have seemed significant. Yet on this day, this Second Continental Congress would begin to again debate an issue that would ultimately help shape much of western civilization over the centuries to come — American independence.
These early American leaders recognized that the relationship between the Colonies and Great Britain was at a crossroads and was becoming increasingly tenuous.
The Colonies had grown up significantly since Jamestown was settled along the banks of the James River in 1607, and with each passing generation an increased sense of confidence was found in these brave men and women, who were slowly beginning to define themselves as Americans.
In the years following the French and Indian War, Great Britain had begun to levy an escalating amount of control over the Colonies, passing the Stamp Act, Quartering Act and other expressions of control.
These actions, charged against a people who were already longing for independence and freedom from the Crown, were understandably met with great resistance.
It has been said that history is just a collection of moments, moments of men and women taking risks, exhibiting courage, and standing up in the face of oppression, when it would be safer to simply sit down in silence.
This was the moment in history in which these 56 men had to respond — a moment in which being a mere politician would not suffice.
This was a moment that required statesmen, men who were willing to pledge their livelihood and indeed their very life for an ideal, for something greater than themselves.
The “shot heard round the world” had been already been fired at Lexington and Concord; however, the shot that would be fired on July 4, 1776, would be even more significant, if for no other reason than the unity in which it was delivered.
This shot would not be with bullets, but with words — words that have from the genesis of our Republic have defined the principles of who we are as a nation.
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
“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.”
“And for the support of this 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.”
With that it was sealed. Fifty-six men standing up in objection to what Jefferson described as an “establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” by Great Britain.
This was not merely an act of civil disobedience. In the eyes of the King, this was viewed as High Treason — an effective death sentence.
There is no doubt that these men understood the practical implications of their actions for themselves and their families. High treason was punishable by death to the accused as well as his family.
However, one can only wonder if the founders realized the potential impact and significance that their actions would have on the world for generations to come.
These men are rightly recognized as some of the greatest political philosophers in history; however, I don’t believe that they viewed themselves with such an elevated significance.
After all, the idea 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” did not originate with them.
Yet, by following their convictions, they laid a foundation of freedom that has defined much of the past 250 years.
If it is true that each generation enjoys the fruits of the sacrifice of the generations past, then it is equally true that with each passing generation comes an increased danger that our appreciation for these past sacrifices will diminish. This is a tragedy.
As we celebrate Independence Day with family and friends and enjoy good food and fireworks, take a moment to remember the magnitude of sacrifice that these 56 heavyweights in American history exhibited.
Standing strong in the face of oppression, they placed their lives, their fortunes, and their honor on the line for what we can rightfully claim as our birthright.
C. Mark Anderson is an attorney in Woodstock, concentrating in business law, wills and trusts, and civil litigation. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.