America has always been a dream its citizens strive for, more than a reality. The ideals behind her are good ones (liberty and the right to pursue happiness!). And although she has never been (and never will be) perfect because of the flawed people who call her home, that doesn’t really matter. She is still an ideal, a nation conceived as the first of its kind—a nation built upon religious freedom that led to all kinds of other freedoms.
Her founders were traitors to the Fatherland of England and became American heroes. They tried diplomacy to resolve their complaints, but the King would not listen. So they, treasonously, wrote up the Declaration of Independence, an assertion that they would no longer allow a foreign body who knew nothing about living in America and refused to give Americans equal rights, to remain in charge. As happens when a commonwealth rebels upheaval resulted. Some Americans were loyal to the British, and some to the Cause, but an enormous number of people never contributed to either war effort. They sat it out as best they could.
The Founders believed in this Cause enough to risk their lives and fortunes for it, since as Benjamin Franklin said, “If we do not all hang together, most assuredly, we will all hang separately!” Their lives were on the line until the end of the war. Seventeen signers fought in the Revolution, and the British captured five of them during the war. One of them, Richard Stockton of New Jersey, never recovered from his incarceration, and died a pauper in 1781.
Seventeen of them lost every penny they had and property they owned. Nine of them lost their lives. Many of them pledged their fortunes to the Cause and were never repaid. Eleven signers had their homes and property destroyed. Francis Lewis’ home was razed and his wife captured. John Hart’s farms and mills were destroyed and he died while fleeing capture. One of the fortunate ones, John Adams, was “hunted like a fox,” and compelled to move his family five times in a few months. The British almost captured his friend Thomas Jefferson when the violent Colonel Tarleton (the inspiration for the sadistic Colonel Tavington in The Patriot) marched through Virginia. He stayed behind longer than was safe for him, to make sure everyone on his plantation got out alive.
Contrary to the painting that depicts them as all there to sign, the signers were never all present at the same time to put their names to the Declaration. They signed it when they could. Though hunted, harassed, captured, and accused of treason, none of them ever apologized for signing it. Some of them wrote the federal laws and state constitutions. Two of them, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, served as President, and both died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. How remarkable!
None of these men were perfect, but they were courageous. There is much we can learn from them, and from our past. Are there problems in our past as a nation? Yes, just like every other nation. Let’s not get so caught up in them we forget to move forward. Many of the greatest figures in history looked ahead rather than behind and knew when to move past retribution into peace. They sought forgiveness, because they knew it was the only way to build a nation. The Founders foresaw what America could become and fought to that end. They used the abuses they suffered under the British as a catalyst for change. Once their nation gained Independence, the Congress befriended England, despite the hardships they suffered in the war, to put the past behind them and build a new future for themselves and us. They took what was good about their past (the laws of England) and made them over, into a new Constitution.
History serves two purposes: to teach us where we’ve been (so we can see where we are now) and to serve as a guideline we can use to avoid repeating its mistakes. It shows us where humans go wrong and how we have grown so we can feel secure in where we are going. If we don’t learn from it, we’re doomed to repeat it. It’s there to remind us not to trap us in the past. I wonder what we might look like as a nation if we forgave those in the past for their imperfections and looked to the future instead? If we accept that as human beings, we are all imperfect, but can still accomplish great things? Together and as individuals?
The men who gathered to proclaim our Independence were nothing alike and had a diverse range of opinions. It took them months of arguments before they agreed, but by then they all felt so strongly about it, they were willing to fight, stake their fortunes, and die for Independence.
It’s fine to strive for an ideal, but let’s not forget to honor the fallible heroes of our past, and not just denigrate them.