We have the fireworks (for now) and the rhetoric on the Fourth but don't give the event and the people it commemorates much thought even on that day.
Declaring independence was a bold, daring and risky move. There's a saying, "There are no successful revolutionaries because if they succeed they become founding fathers." What is left unsaid is that, if they fail, they're traitors and they usually died. We mostly learn about Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. in school (at least I hope they still teach that). But history texts don't often call attention to the tremendous personal risk and bravery these men exhibited when they put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence.
These were prominent men with property, families and wealth. All this, as well as their lives, was placed at risk as soon as they signed the Declaration. In the eyes of the English they had become traitors.
At the time of the Revolution, it's estimated one third of the population supported it, one third opposed it and one third didn't care. Can you imagine, in this day and age of polling, any group - especially of prominent citizens - would make such a bold move?
Even the serious histories on the major participants can't let us know what was going on in their heads. In this age of cynicism, we could imagine some of them thinking, "What's in this for me?" But why would such a small group take that first step of declaring independence, especially from the strongest military power of the time? Their biographies and other studies of history don't indicate significant personal self interest in their actions. It seems some people do the right thing just because it's the right thing to do. We were fortunate to have had the right people in the right place at the right time.
But, they weren't alone. Many of those that called themselves Americans had a spirit much different from that of the people and the cultures in Europe they had left behind. There was no royalty to be born into. There was no class of society they had to stay in for their whole lives. There wasn't even a limit on the land available to possess.
In the developed nations of the world, someone owned every piece of land. Not here. There was land to the west for anyone. Any man could become, if not wealthy, self sufficient and personally independent. Despite the option of going west for land, when the revolution came, many signed up to fight for a country that wasn't yet a country, to accept pay in a currency that wasn't yet an accepted currency, and to pledge loyalty to an idea that wasn't yet fully understood.
Writing this makes me think of John Kennedy's inaugural comment, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The people in the revolutionary times lived that comment. The people in the 1960's had to be reminded and many in this time (even after 9/11) can't imagine putting the country ahead of their safety, their interests and their money.
Those at the top of society who conceived the idea of revolution, those in the middle who supported the war and those at the bottom who made it happen, were truly heroes and giants. We became the first modern democracy in a world of monarchy. Can you imagine what the world might be like today if America hadn't lead the way out of monarchy into democracy? It would be a totally different world. Take a few moments out of your high speed, mulit-tasking life and think about how much of what you have today is because of what those in 1776 did.
Happy Independence Day.