COMMENTARY: Born on the Fourth of July, or thereabouts, an enterprise of Liberty
Published: July 2nd, 2013
OKLAHOMA CITY — John Adams said the day should be “solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
It was July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress voted to sever ties with the mother country. At a meeting in Philadelphia, 12 of the colonies voted for independence. (New York’s delegation was awaiting instructions from back home.)
On July 3, John wrote his wife, Abigail, that the day should be considered “the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.”
Adams, a Massachusetts man, had labored on a writing committee with Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian with a heart for the common man, and Benjamin Franklin, the jack-of-all trades genius perhaps best known for his journalism.
Adams insisted Jefferson take the lead in crafting the text. He did so, having told a friend that “by the God that made me, I will cease to exist” before accepting further British rule.
Their final draft made the case for independence, and was dated July 4. Local printer John Dunlap delivered the document to Congress on July 5.
On August 2, having pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the enterprise of Liberty, the delegates gathered again to affix their names to the Declaration of Independence. The American experiment took shape, as words on paper put force and focus behind the actions of patriots.
A dozen years later, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked. The original governing document of the United States had not worn well. Initially intending merely to make the Articles of Confederation workable, the delegates were embarked on a search for a new framework for republican governance.
Divisions were many, but fundamentally the bigger states wanted a national Legislature based on population; smaller states insisted the former colonies be equal – one-state-one vote on national laws and policy.
The venerable Franklin rarely spoke at the Convention, but he was worried about the enterprise. On the morning of June 28, he gained recognition and rose to speak.
According to James Madison’s notes, Franklin told his brethren the delegates seemed “to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it.” He recounted deliberations, as delegates cast about for one model or another of governance from past or present, finding none “suitable to our circumstances.”
Despite his reputation as a skeptic in matters of faith, it seemed odd to him “That we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?” He took the group back to the days of that war for Independence, remembering “In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard and they were graciously answered.”
Franklin wondered: “Have we forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
He moved that “henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business.”
In discussion, delegates admitted a lack of funds – the means with which to pay a preacher – had caused the lack of prayer. They fussed among themselves for some time, and never got around to passing the motion before adjourning for the day.
But perhaps the point had been made. Deliberations in Philadelphia became more productive. A Legislature of two houses – one apportioned equally by state (with two votes for each in the upper chamber) and the other by population (the lower chamber) emerged in the Constitution Madison wrote. A new Constitution of separated powers was sent to the people — not perfect, but a start.
On September 17, 1787, the nation began to consider the Constitution. By March 1789, it was ratified. Thirteen months later, in spring 1790, Ben Franklin died.
Representing American interests in France, Jefferson was not at that 1787 Convention. Later, Adams would be the second president, for but one term. Jefferson was the third president, for two terms.
In power, the allies became bitterly estranged. Adams was the nationalist and an advocate of central power, and Jefferson the libertarian foe of centralization.
Jefferson, target of some of the most vicious personal attacks in newspapers of his day, had nonetheless settled into a mature frame of mind, believing, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Saddened over their divisions, Adams wrote on January 1, 1812, wishing the Sage of Monticello a Happy New Year. Slowly, across the miles, they reconciled in their latter years, exchanging warm, even tender, letters discussing the weighty matters of their day.
Late on the fourth of July, 1826, John Adams, 90, passed from this world into the next. In words of tribute to his friend and foe, he said “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
Actually, five hours before, the southerner, at 82, had died on his estate, but the government he helped establish has endured.
I read somewhere that nothing is inevitable – not the rise and fall of great nations, or the dawning of another day. Still, fully cognizant of their faults, I believe there was wisdom in that generation of men who, without surrendering their own integrity, trusted one another when it mattered.
I know not what the future will bring, but I second Mr. Franklin’s motion.
Let us implore the assistance of Heaven, humbly seeking wisdom and help from the Father of Lights, asking for His blessing on this land and our peoples, living in the midst of trouble, and hope.