REMEMBERING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN AMERICAN
Each July 4, we have a specific occasion to remember what it is that defines us as Americans. That memory (of a sovereign people whose government would depend on the consent of the governed and would guard against deprivation of their unalienable rights to life liberty and property) has long been forgotten by many who live in the United States and, indeed, by those who hold elected office, including the President of the United States. Let us remember why it is that we celebrate Independence Day, the day we set apart each year as requested by the Founding Fathers to reflect on what it is that truly defines us as Americans.
A recurrent fear of George Washington was that the fledgling republic dedicated to the end that the people be free would overcome constitutional constraints and supplant the people’s liberties, but he well understood that danger to depend on the abandonment of principle by the people themselves. In 1783, he wrote: “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period . . . . At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”
That most extraordinary of documents, the Declaration of Independence, brilliantly and succinctly defines the Lockean principles that are at the heart of the American republic and that reflect our core commitment to individual liberty and against government tyranny, making those principles the very definition of what it is to be an American. Jefferson wrote: “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.”
Our Founding Fathers forged a new government under a written Constitution with the unprecedented aim of protecting the unalienable rights of man to life, liberty and property, of making the people sovereign and the government the people’s servant.
Against the mightiest military in the world at that time, the Imperial Army, Navy, and Marines of Great Britain, a rag tag force numbering no more than 20,000 men in arms achived an end that only Divine Providence could assure: the defeat of that British force and the surrender of that Empire. More miraculous still, the victors did not steal the rich spoils of our land but honored the principle of liberty that animated rebellion, choosing, after a short but unworkable experience with the Articles of Confederation, a Constitution of Liberty ratified by the states.
In February of 1778, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army watched as his men barely clung on to life, that terrible winter in Valley Forge. Washington was in retreat. He lacked basic provisions. Eleven thousand men and approximately 500 women and children eked out an existence on a high plateau in huts assembled from forageable wood. Few had a decent coat, shoes were in short supply, blankets were insufficient in number for the troops. Disease ravaged the camp. General Washington feared that his feeble army would dissolve.
General Washington wrote on February 16, 1778, to Pennsylvania Governor George Clinton: “It is with reluctance, I trouble you on a subject, which does not fall within your province; but it is a subject that occasions me more distress, than I have felt, since the commencement of the war; and which loudly demands the most zealous exertions of every person of weight and authority, who is interested in the success of our affairs. I mean the present dreadful situation of the army for want of provisions, and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity. It is more alarming than you will probably conceive, for, to form a just idea, it would be necessary to be on the spot. For some days past, there has been little less than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been ere this excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny or dispersion.
Strong symptoms, however, discontent have appeared in particular instances; and nothing but the most active efforts everywhere can long avert so shocking a catastrophe. Our present sufferings are not all. There is no foundation laid for any adequate relief hereafter. All the magazines provided in the States of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, and all the immediate additional supplies they seem capable of affording, will not be sufficient to support the army more than a month longer, if so long. Very little has been done to the Eastward, and as little to the Southward; and whatever we have a right to expect from those quarters, must necessarily be very remote; and is indeed more precarious than could be wished. When the aforementioned supplies are exhausted, what a terrible crisis must ensue, unless all the energy of the Continent is exerted to provide a timely remedy.”
Barely maintaining a foothold on the land, Washington’s army endured. And then that Great Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army implemented a plan so cunning that it deceived the British Empire’s finest officers.
Following the Franco-American Alliance of 1778, in 1780, the French and American armies united North of New York. There, through a series of feints and false dispatches intercepted by British regulars, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America, Lord Henry Clinton was deceived into thinking the Continental Army and the French would lay siege on New York, then in British hands.
Instead, the French West Indies Fleet under the command of Comte de Grasse positioned itself off the coast of Virginia and the Continental Army and French under the command of General Washington and the Marquis de LaFayette marched from Newport, Rhode Island to Yorktown, Virginia.
Lord Charles Cornwallis, commanding the British army garrisoned at Yorktown, was caught off guard, alarmed to learn that his avenue of retreat from battle, by way of the British fleet, was blocked by the presence of the French Fleet off the Yorktown coast. In addition, the Continental Army in numbers far larger than anticipated had assembled a major force preventing Cornwalllis from escaping by land from Yorktown. Under the circumstances, Lord Cornwallis agreed to terms of surrender on October 19, 1781, signaling the end of British occupation of North America and the rise of a new American nation.
For the first time in world history a government would be founded on a written Constitution predicated on the consent of the governed and dedicated to the protection of the unalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and property. So, when we celebrate Independence Day, we should be reminded of the rights revolution that gave birth to our nation. We should be very grateful for the unique privilege of living in a land whose founding charter promises protection for the unalienable rights of man, and each of us should be resolutely dedicated to the defense of those rights from enemies domestic and foreign, even with our lives.
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