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History's Greatest Political Act

In the early summer of 1776, our second President John Adams, at the time a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, noted that July second, 1776 would be remembered as America's greatest day. "I am apt to believe", he wrote to his wife Abigail, "that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

So then why do we light the fireworks on July 4?

The schoolbook story of the Declaration isn't quite the whole story. In fact if you consider all the events leading up to the day when 50 men affixed their signatures to the most famous document in history, it's a wonder it was signed at all.

Congress throughout 1776 passed several measures that clearly expressed independence from Great Britain: They disarmed the Tories, who were those supporting the British. Congress organized a fleet of privateers to plunder British shipping, opened American ports to ships of all nations except Britain and even tried to convince the French-speaking Canadians to join as the 14th colony. On May 15 they unanimously approved a resolution recommending that the individual colonies assume all powers of government. (Several delegates called it a Declaration of independence.)

And then on July 2, Congress voted, 12 colonies to none with one abstention, for independence.

Two days later the Declaration drafted by 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was approved. We’ve all seen the rendering of the document: IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. Which is why we celebrate independence on the Fourth.

“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.”

Without Jefferson’s brilliant prose the Declaration might not have been so easy for us to memorize in school. But make no mistake: without John Adams the Declaration wouldn’t have happened. He’s the one who made the case for independence to his skeptical colleagues. He’s the one who log-rolled the votes.

Jubilation spread as the Declaration was read in town squares from Boston to Savannah. The celebrations must have been rowdy. But then reality came to visit. With a thud.

The colony abstaining from the independence vote was New York. Maybe because on July 2, while the delegates were making history in Philadelphia, nine thousand British troops were landing 80 miles away on Staten Island. Soon they would number 32,000 -- more than the entire population of Philadelphia. General Washington commanded perhaps 20,000. The British were supported by 30 warships and perhaps 1,200 guns. Washington had no naval support and not much artillery.

The Declaration wouldn't be signed until August 2 because of the time it would take to prepare the official document. Meanwhile, increasingly bad news arrived from New York each day.

Think about it. In the month between the vote and the signing, each delegate had plenty of time to reconsider. Treason against the king meant death. And there they were, facing down the world’s greatest military power with an outnumbered, poorly-equipped army of their own. (“To brave the storm in a skiff made of paper”, as one delegate put it.)

These men had spent their lives building fortunes and reputations. (In fact John Hancock was among the wealthiest men in the colonies.) Each must have wondered about losing it all, and whether he would be remembered only for the sight of his body twisting from the end of a rope in a public square.

Yet 50 men lined up on August 2 and signed the official document, which had been beautifully penned on a large parchment. Above their signatures, the last line read: "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor"

It was the single most remarkable act by any public body. Ever. Without the selfless courage of those men with so much to lose, the revolution would have fizzled.

August 2, 1776 was America's greatest day because that was the day American Exceptionalism was born. That’s the voice inside, uniquely American, that says "OK, the odds are long and the consequences of failure are severe, but I’ll do it anyway. Because it is right. Because posterity will prosper. And because there are things in this life more important than just me."

How has "posterity" returned this favor?

The political news is dominated by sovereign debt, municipal bankruptcies and a rancorous political culture where one side considers American Exceptionalism to be irrelevant.

Over the decades we've elected politicians who were afraid to say NO; who lacked the founders' bravery, selflessness and sense of history. Which is why we're stuck with unsustainable spending programs that first were considered "charity", then a "safety net" and now "entitlements”.

"Facts are stubborn things", John Adams famously said. Here are the facts: Forty-five percent of households receive a government check each month. Forty six percent of taxpayers pay no federal income tax. The American culture reflects this noticeable (and increasingly un-civil) rift between the tax producers and the tax consumers. The national debt is beyond 17 trillion dollars. That's $50,000 for every American. And it doesn't count the ballooning state and municipal debt.

The long recession and slow recovery demonstrate how government expansion is choking private-sector growth.  Which means that we're the first generation of Americans who are wondering if their children will have the same opportunities that we enjoyed.

There's another word describe this state of affairs:  Detroit.

Unwinding this will require courage and self-sacrifice. Neither is a quality that one would associate with the average public official.

So it’s time to raise our standards. And elect LEADERS who will pledge not necessarily their lives and fortunes but certainly their honor. And maybe, in a few cases, their political ambitions. Those stubborn things called FACTS demand it.

Are we asking too much? No.

We are, after all, Americans and therefore exceptional. Which means that each of us can hear the calling of our forefathers from deep within:

"I will do it because it is right. I will do it for posterity. And I will do it because, believe it or not, there are more important things in this life than just me."


56 men signed the Declaration but only 50 signed on August 2.

The British dismissed the Declaration as merely the work of a few rabble-rousers, who were targeted for hanging but never captured. That group included Adams and Franklin, both of whom spent the Revolution in Europe, seeking financial help and French military assistance.

Government-assistance and tax-percentage figures are more or less an averaging of what's reported by entities such as the Census Bureau and Tax Foundation. While 46 percent pay no income tax, a substantial percentage of those working in the private sector pay into Social Security.