For 236 years Americans have celebrated the Fourth of July as the birth date of our nation. It marks for us a beginning, a sort of national commencement—of the revolution, of our nation, and of our determined march to freedom.
Yet if we consider this important day through the eyes of our Founding Fathers, we find that the Fourth of July marked for them not so much a beginning as an end to a long and painful process, a troubled time some have called the First American Revolution—the one in the minds and hearts of men.
We must remember that the famous Lexington and Concord engagements, as well as the storied ride of Paul Revere popularized in the Longfellow poem, took place in April of 1775. But it was not until July of 1776, some fifteen months later, that Congress formally endorsed the Declaration of Independence. What took our Founding Fathers so long? What was the struggle that took nearly a year and a half to resolve?
The men who would ultimately sign the Declaration of Independence were not men for whom the idea of revolution came easily. A conservative lot who held dear their Christian faith, their English heritage, and the unique colonial society they had cultivated at great cost in the wilderness, these men were not the wild-eyed malcontents we think of as revolutionaries today. Instead, the Founding Fathers were men of strong principle who could not back down when their ideals and lifestyles were threatened by English aggression. When a war they did not want was forced upon them, when their values, their property—indeed, their very lives—were at stake, peace on British terms was never an option, and here we find one of the most misunderstood truths of our national origins.
The American Revolution was fought, unlike most modern revolutions, to preserve a social order rather than to overthrow one. What we have called a revolution was in reality a colonial rebellion against a power seeking to destroy a largely Christian and traditional way of life. As management genius Peter Drucker has said, the American Revolution was a “conservative counter-revolution,” fought not by power hungry radicals trying to overthrow an established government but by loyal citizens against grasping tyrannical rule.
The truth now so often forgotten is that it was England who first declared war on the American colonies. Attempting to consolidate her gains following the French and Indian War, late in 1775 the British Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act, which broke off relations with the colonists and declared them a “foreign enemy.” John Adams wrote in response that the Act “makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties.” England forced the colonies out from under Royal Protection and declared itself the colonists’ adversaries. This belligerence stunned the colonial leaders and they sought every means available to prevent separation. Even after Lexington and Concord, they hoped against hope that England would turn from her harsh course. It was not to be.
Finally, with every possible remedy exhausted, the colonial leaders pleaded their case in a Declaration before the nations of the world, claiming America’s rights according to God’s law and the law of reason. These United States, they said, “are and of a right ought to be,” free and independent.
The Founding Fathers were not radicals seeking power; they were family men, business men, ministers and, for the most part, Christians, who were forced to fight a defensive battle, seeking a return to established legal principles and governmental boundaries—and it cost them dearly.
Many of the signers of the Declaration were killed during the War. Some were heartlessly made to watch while loved ones were tortured or hanged. Many lost their estates and a large number suffered physical ailments for the rest of their lives from wounds incurred during the war. They were hunted, vilified and despised by the British and some of their fellow colonists alike. Yet having pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” these founding heroes could not turn back, despite the horrors they faced.
Writing some years after the events of the Revolution but as an eyewitness to most of it, John Quincy Adams wrote, “Posterity, you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.” Perhaps, even yet, we will. Perhaps.