By Marek P. Zabriskie
This Saturday, our nation will celebrate the 244th anniversary of our nation’s independence. As a child, my family and I spent our summers in Chatham, Massachusetts. We would spend this day watching a festive parade with floats, fire engines, clowns, antique cars and dune buggies.
At night, we would sit on the village green and listen to a volunteer band play the Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic music, followed by glorious fireworks. Most of us have memories of the Fourth of July spent in a special place with meaningful celebrations that have created lifelong memories. We Americans cherish our freedom and the opportunity to celebrate it.
The word “freedom” occurs only 19 times in the Bible, while the word “free” occurs 132 times. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal. 5:1) and “For you were called to freedom…” (Gal. 5:13)
Our country was founded on freedom. For twenty-three years, my family and I lived outside of Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in a brick building now known as Independence Hall.
It was actually on July 2 that the delegates to the Continental Congress first took the plunge when in the then-State House, they “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival… It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Printed news of the document emerged first in German. The Pennsylvanishcher Staatsbote first broke the story on July 5: “Yesterday the honorable Continental Congress declared the United Colonies free and independent states. The declaration is now in press in English; it is dated July 4, 1776, and will be published today or tomorrow. The now-famous signatures adorning the parchment copy were not affixed until August 2.
What our nation honors and has striven to carry out is the ongoing struggle to ensure that this nation remains free and democratic and is inspired by our understanding 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.”
Our nation was built on those words and the blood, sweat and tears of people who sacrificed their lives to make sure that we could exercise “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another two had sons captured.
Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War. They signed and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Thomas McKean was hounded by the British and was forced to move his family constantly. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s home was taken over by the British at the battle of Yorktown. He urged General George Washington to open fire. His home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.
Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The British jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later, he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.
Those who fought for the creation of our country, and those who resisted it, shared a common belief in the Judeo-Christian God. They disagreed over many things, including that all men were created equal. And because they were equal, they were free: free to resist conformity in all aspects of their lives: religious, political, communal, social and familial.
Shortly before he died, the long-time activist, preacher and pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, said, “The true patriots are those who carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country as a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world.”
That’s worth remembering as we celebrate our freedom and independence. True patriots are those who love country enough to address its flaws. Patriotism should never be blind or deaf. Our country affords its citizens the right to have honest debate and protest when our freedom is threatened. This is the essence of democracy.
It took nearly a century to abolish slavery. We are still struggling mightily to ensure equality across our country. As people of faith, Jesus would demand that we pursue freedom and liberty for all. This is the gift that we celebrate every Fourth of July.
The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie is the Rector of Christ Church Greenwich.