We celebrate this day as Independence Day, taking for granted the fact that the United States of America is a nation unto itself and that we are a free people.
Freedom and independence are not inevitable. And were it not for a brilliant and brave band of men who gathered in Philadelphia 229 years ago today, this would not be the nation it is.
The battle for independence had already begun when the official declaration was signed and sent to King George, but the 56 men who signed the document made the Revolutionary War inevitable.
The most famous sentence of the Declaration of Independence opens its second paragraph: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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."
But the most awe-inspiring sentence could well be the last: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Myth and reality
Following that sentence were the signatures of 56 men representing the 13 colonies. Contrary to a popular Internet tract that describes the horrifying consequences that signing brought to many of those men, most actually survived the war with health, families and fortunes intact. But that does not negate the fact that every one of those signers had reason to believe that they would be viewed as traitors to the crown and could expect to be treated as such -- that is hanged.
Today, Americans have reason to wonder how many men and women would be willing to take that same risk for just the possibility of establishing a free country.
There are, of course, some. As President Bush noted in his holiday proclamation, "Today, a new generation of Americans continues to defend our nation and spread freedom. On this Fourth of July, we honor the brave men and women of our military, and their families, and we express our gratitude for their courage, dedication to duty, and love of country."
Regardless of how anyone feels about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, there is no question that the men and women who are risking their lives so far from home are acting in the best spirit of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Something in common
And, like most of the signers of the declaration, our soldiers risk their well-being in relative anonymity. Most Americans today would not recognize the names of more than five or six of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Most private citizens -- those without immediate family serving in Iraq -- probably couldn't name five or six of the 130,000 soldiers serving in Iraq.
On this day dedicated to celebrating freedom, each citizen should take at least a few minutes to think about the heroes whose names we do not know. It would be fitting for each of us, in our own way, to request the protection of divine Providence for all who answer the call of their nation -- risking their lives, forsaking any chance to make a fortune and pledging their honor.
This day belongs to them. They earned it