On this date 243 years ago, the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to ratify the Declaration of Independence.
The document declaring unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, set forth this grand American experiment in Democracy that continues to this day.
These 56 men and those who later came together to craft the Constitution were not, as Americans so often like to think, the closest of friends. They didn’t agree very often. They fought bitter ideological battles that sometimes devolved into name calling. Some of their friends and neighbors thought they were committing treason by rebelling against the powers that be. Ultimately came compromise and peace.
Since 1776, forces — sometimes foreign and often ourselves — have tried to rip this nation apart. Most notably in the 1860s, Americans killed Americans by the thousands because we could not agree on Thomas Jefferson’s meaning when he wrote that “all men are created equal.” Jefferson’s contemporaries couldn’t agree on exactly what that meant either.
The union forged in bitter clashes of words survived, though there still remains a faction that wishes it didn’t.
Today, our country still debates whether Jefferson’s words include migrants seeking asylum and immigrants who have entered this country illegally. The founders didn’t tell us and would likely be having the same arguments we have today if faced with the same issues. Some of them, we believe, would want a wall to protect our southern border with Mexico, while others would call the wall a waste of valuable resources.
Through the 20th century, our nation — though often divided on how to proceed — withstood the international fight against fascism, Nazism and communism. At home we dealt with issues of race, class and power, expanding but never contracting from those counted among the Constitution’s “We the People.”
As we face the tests of the 21st century, our nation appears increasingly polarized as we head into the 2020 presidential election. That’s the fruit we reap for providing everyone a voice. Sometimes it is bitter and sour as a lemon. Sometimes the fruit is a sweet victory.
The clashes are nothing new, nor anything that will disappear from this Earth. America was built on conflict, and at times has seemed to thrive on it, ultimately emerging stronger.
What this nation has forgotten, however, is that beautiful but rarely repeated final line of the Declaration of Independence: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
When Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Sherman and Robert Livingston presented the document to the Second Continental Congress oh so many years ago, they didn’t agree on everything, but they found a common bond in this idea.
Certainly every American can find peace in unity in this today.