George Washington at Monmouth June 28, 1778
This engraving by G.R. Hall depicts George Washington at Monmouth during the American Revolutionary War, June 28, 1778. Public domain image from Archives.gov.

This week we celebrate the Nation's 237th anniversary of Independence Day. On July 4 and over this weekend we will celebrate one of the proudest moments in our Nation's history -- our rightful claim to self rule and independence. Many of us associate this day with our Nation's freedom, strength, and prosperity. This day remains a beacon of freedom for the world to see and it symbolizes what other democratic societies attempt to emulate. It is a day we recall our country's proud heritage and the remarkable courage of our founders.

This is our perspective as a people and a Nation. However, I believe it is always good to view something from someone else's perspective. Biographer Ron Chernow recorded the perplexed observations of one British officer from the Revolutionary War when the king's army withdrew from New York City. The British had long insisted that the "raucous" city would collapse into anarchy without the royal army to keep public order. After the army's departure, this officer wrote: "Here, in this city, we have had an army for more than seven years and yet could not keep the peace of it . . . Now [that] we are gone, everything is in quietness and safety. The Americans are a curious, original people. They know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them."

Seven years earlier, before open combat erupted, George Washington had hoped to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. After the first bloodshed in the battle of Lexington, Washington realized the path to justice and peace could only be achieved through war. As if foreseeing the bitter suffering ahead, he wrote, "Unhappy it is . . . to reflect that a brother's sword has been sheathed in a brother's breast and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves." (Ironically this consequence was to be experienced again in the same way, for a similar injustice, in the Civil War.)

Consequently, the years following the first day of Independence were dangerous for Americans. The liberty we enjoy today was still a distant hope for those who envisioned and pronounced it. The Nation's darkest hour was yet to come. Seven years of violent combat and wrenching uncertainty marked the lives of those who dared to sacrifice everything for posterity. Our founders, who we often picture as enshrined in nobility, experienced such fierce tribulation that few Americans today can identify with them. Most of them had access to the resources that would enable a comfortable life, but only if they chose not to entangle themselves in the colonies' affairs. Yet they risked everything -- and would have lost everything had this war been decided by the odds, firmly in favor of the British. Indeed, the hardship on all American combatants was intense; so overwhelming in fact that desertion was rampant in the Continental Army.

It was during these dark days that Thomas Paine penned the words Americans needed to hear so badly:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

And here we are more than 200 years later. Those who fought for our independence demonstrated profound discipline and courage, proving indeed not to be summer soldiers. Our own troubles by comparison do not share the same intensity -- but they are troubles nonetheless. And they are not easy. Perhaps we can find encouragement this Independence Day by recalling our American heritage and the mettle that runs in our blood. We are not the kind of people to shrink from adversity. We do not collapse at the sight of hardship.

I invite you to reflect with me this Independence Day that by virtue of being Americans, we have accessible to us an inheritance and noble history passed down from our forefathers. Their qualities are available to us to emulate, and July 4 is a fitting day to remember.

Page last updated Tue July 2nd, 2013 at 00:00