Some would like to rewrite America’s origin story as one of oppression–rather than one of hope and liberty. The true story of America’s founding and the incredible sacrifice of those who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Americans who made its iconic words a reality is epic.
Current efforts to reframe American history and reshape the zeitgeist of the nation would have the signers and the Americans who fought and died in that bloody struggle spinning in their graves.
Two hundred and forty-five years ago, on July 4, 1776, the United States declared independence from Great Britain. The signers of the Declaration of Independence committed treason in the eyes of the Crown. Despite the fireworks we now associate with the holiday, it was not a celebratory moment. The mood was deadly serious. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers, recalled the moment when Marbleheader Elbridge Gerry signed: “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”
They understood the gravity of what they were doing. “The Silence & the gloom of the morning were interrupted I well recollect only for a moment by Col. Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry at the table, ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’”
Despite the death sentence hanging over his head, the Marbleheader considered the act of signing the most significant moment of his life. Harrison’s attempt at humor failed to lighten the mood, “This speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.” The colonists knew too well how the British empire treated those who protested. Recently, the British had put down an insurrection in Ireland, and a judge leveled a barbaric sentence on captured revolutionaries: “You are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead, for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies are to be divided into four quarters.”
The signers solemnly pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor not so they could oppress, but so that they could throw off their oppressors. That generation of Americans sacrificed all they could for the freedom of their countrymen and generations after them. Before the war was finished, many of them paid the highest price. They were captured and tortured. Their homes were burned and ransacked. Their sons and families were killed. Their fortunes were spent, leaving them destitute.
History records the stories of the founders, but every person who fought sacrificed for the revolutionary idea that all individuals are created equal. In Beverly, in what is now fittingly known as Independence Park, John Glover assembled the Indispensable Marblehead Regiment and read Jefferson’s iconic words to his men—Black, white, Hispanic, and Native. Despite the threat to their lives if they failed, the regiment believed in their cause. Within days, the unit would make the long march to New York City to join Washington’s forces. The collective actions of this uniquely diverse unit would help ensure the Declaration’s words became a reality. The full story of the heroes from Marblehead is now told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of the regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, a largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history.
They weren’t perfect, and neither is America. But we should build on their legacy of liberty and equality, not mar or destroy it. The Patriots were explicit in their intentions, and they backed those eloquent words with their actions. Despite the enormous odds of battling the greatest army and navy in the world at the time and even their fellow Americans, they demonstrated that nothing was preordained and a small group of individuals through their human agency can change the course of history. In the process, they became citizens, not subjects. In response to the Intolerable Acts levied upon them by the Crown they wrote, “The most sacred obligations are upon us to transmit the glorious purchase, unfettered by power, unclogg’d with shackles, to our innocent and beloved offspring…and of unborn millions.—If a boundless extent of continent, swarming with millions, will tamely submit to live, move and have their being at the arbitrary will of a licentious minister, they basely yield to voluntary slavery, and future generations shall load their memories with incessant execrations.”
We do the memory of these Americans and their sacrifice a great dishonor if we don’t protect for the next generation the truth about the nature of their struggle. They felt duty-bound to risk everything to advance the cause of liberty for the “unborn millions” who would come after them and so should we.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian