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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Originally posted July 4, 2001

In the United States today, we take time out to celebrate a document, and the courage of the men who signed it 233 years ago. We call it “Independence Day,” but the resolution declaring the colonies independent of Britain was adopted on July 2, 1776. On the Fourth, the Continental Congress embraced a piece of paper that explained and justified the action they took two days earlier.

This was not a new nation they were creating, not yet. As many issues divided as united them, but they put aside their differences for the common good, as they perceived it. The new alliance stretched from New Hampshire to Georgia, and creating a document they all could agree on was a remarkable accomplishment.

The people they represented were deeply divided. At best a third of the citizens agreed with their actions, and they knew it. But the rebellion had already begun. Battles had been fought. Now they felt compelled to tell the world why people should be free of oppression, and to convince the world (and their own reluctant citizens) why independence was the only course left to take.

Only the direst circumstances foster this kind of political courage. Here was a small band of colonists — farmers, merchants, judges and lawyers — placing themselves and their neighbors squarely in opposition to the world’s most powerful government. The king had a great army to reinforce his rule. The Americans had little reason to believe they could win the war they were committing themselves to.

But they knew that the principles and ideals set forth in the Declaration were worth the struggle, however outnumbered and unprepared they were, however hopeless it looked.

Filtered through 233 years of history, the men and women who began the struggle for independence stand out starkly for their courage in the face of overwhelming odds. The goal was limited, at least until the war was won. But that’s always the way it is. It’s easier to wage a revolutionary struggle than to maintain it afterward.

The men and women in Washington today are less the descendants of the heroes of the war for independence than their beneficiaries. Each generation molds the government into its own image, so that in a time of relative prosperity the petty details of a health care bill become the great issue on which the nation’s fortunes turn.

That’s a good sign, probably. It’s a sign that we’re working out problems without having to resort to drastic measures. It doesn’t mean that our problems are small, or that our differences are insignificant. But it means that most of us have faith that we will be able to solve those problems and work out those differences. It’s the same kind of optimism those men in Philadelphia showed all those years ago.

4 July 2009

Gray holiday.

Some of the “Truths” they held to be “self-evident” were actually new concepts that not even the people they represented agreed on. The notion that “all Men are created equal” had hardly been seriously considered by most of them, and it’s still in question for many people today.

Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned the slave trade, but many delegates weren’t ready for that statement and it was struck from the document. It took four score and seven years for the United States to abolish slavery, and it was again brought about by the courage of a forward thinking leader in the face of a violent struggle.

In another eighty years, teetering on the edge of their country’s entry into World War II, African Americans were still not as free and equal as the words of the Declaration demanded. In 1940, it was considered an act of political courage merely to suggest that soldiers of different races to serve together. President Roosevelt’s proposal that African American bands play on navy ships, so that white sailors could get used to seeing black faces, was hailed by civil rights leaders as a major concession.

It’s shameful that the reality of equal rights is still debated. The many people who have given their lives for that principle are the spiritual descendants of the freedom fighters of 1776. The struggle continues, in the United States and around the world, wherever basic rights and freedoms are abridged. The courage of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, however imperfectly realized, should inspire those oppressed by despots and tyrants for as long as freedom for all remains a goal instead of a fact.

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Giants 9, Astros 0. Unlike last night, when the Giants scored all their runs early, today they made Tim Lincecum wait until the sixth inning before they broke it open with eight straight hitters reaching base and six runs scoring. Not that Lincecum wasn’t up to the task, striking out eight in seven three-hit shutout innings, with eight strikeouts.

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