July 4th, also known as Independence Day, is a much more lighthearted and festive American holiday — with cookouts, parades, beach and boating parties and fireworks — than other patriotic holidays such 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. At the time, Great Britain was the most powerful nation on earth, while the thirteen American colonies were poor and disunited. The British Crown deemed the issuance of a declaration of independence an act of treason, which meant that all signatories would be punishable by death.
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.
Indeed, 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. While his troops felt utterly overwhelmed, with retreat bringing on dejected morale, General George Washington was a man of extraordinary faith. When Washington first received a copy of the Declaration about a week after its drafting, he had immediately ordered that chaplains be hired for every regiment, stating his purpose was to assure that, “every officer and man, will endeavor so live and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier, defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”
What prompted the Continental Congress to begin displaying all 56 signatories of the Declaration can be traced to Washington’s determination and success three months later at the Battle of Trenton in December 1776 — a remarkable victory considering the odds were no better than they had been when he faced utter defeat in New York. Perceiving this a miracle and harbinger of more victories to come, 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 thirteen 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 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 military success against all odds in the war for independence. Rather it was 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,” and 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.
As it turns out, the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate on July 4th, 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 surrender 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, in renewing those ideas and convictions that brought the Founders together, which embodied a certainty that the rights of the people come from God, and not the state. It’s not about being reactionary or turning the clock back, but rather it’s about aligning our thinking and action with the inclusive ideas, principles, courage, and faith that enabled prior generations of Americans to overcome, advance and prosper more than any other people in human history.