Monday, July 4, 2011

Fourth of July Reflections

A few days ago I started listening to the audio version of Don't Know Much About American History, a concise overview of our heritage, written for 4th to 7th graders. I believe our kids read this when we were home schooling, but it is a good read for any age. That is, there's plenty of thought food as we revisit our nation's story.

The format is question and answer, but really the author simply uses the questions as clever ways to talk about various people and events. For example, "Did Daniel Boone wear a coonskin cap?" The question is less relevant than the subject matter, which is actually, "What was Daniel Boone's role in early American history?"

With today being Independence Day, it is fitting that yesterday I listened to the section on our American Revolution and thought maybe a few words about Thomas Jefferson would be suitable. When it comes right down to it, history is essentially about characters. The events of history are best understood by understanding the people who were catalysts for these events.

We celebrate July 4 as the birthday of our country, but it's interesting that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson also died on this date, and in fact the same day many Independence Days ago. These two men, our second and third presidents, played major roles in their day. I think it no accident that these two men owned the largest personal libraries in colonies. Both were studious readers.

Jefferson was also a writer. When the Continental Congress decided to declare its independence from England, they called on young Tom Jefferson to draw up the first draft, and a stellar piece of writing it was. In point of fact, when Jefferson died his tombstone makes no mention of his being the third president of the U.S. Rather, he had it inscribed there that he was author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and responsible for Virginia's Statute of Religious Freedom.

Jefferson's pen did more than just scribe a critical document in our history. He was also an avid letter writer. Using a machine called a polygraph he made copies of his letters, which numbered more than 16,000 in all, or 19,000 depending on who's count is most accurate. If you've ever been to Monticello, his home in Virginia, you'll also know that the guy was into gadgets. But foremost, he was a writer.

Let's read the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.

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.

This was followed by what have come to be the Declaration's most significant pronouncements.

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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

After this Preamble, there followed a list of grievances, an outline of justifications for such an action as this.

Whereas the ideals are profound, there were still flaws in our founding documents. Slavery remained as an institution, and women had few rights. Landowners still held the power, that is, men with property. But events had been set in motion that would re-shape the future, founded on ideals and dreams.

As you enjoy the day... reflect a little on our roots, and dream.

No comments: