As Independence Day celebrations break out across these United States, Americans everywhere will remember what occurred in Philadelphia during that miraculous summer of 1776. They’ll think about wise old Ben Franklin leaning on his cane in exasperation while John Adams pompously droned on. They’ll of course think about the unanimous vote for independence. Perhaps they’ll consider the incredible courage it took for those Founding Fathers to “hang together,” as Franklin famously advised, noting that they would certainly “hang separately” were they not unified in their treasonous rebellion against the British crown.
Here in 2019, in what seems to be one of the most politically polarized times in our nation’s history, there are three important lessons Americans should take away from what occurred that scorching summer 243 years ago:
- Small and seemingly insignificant events can literally change the course of history;
- Individuals under-appreciated in their time and long-forgotten since have played crucial roles in shaping the country and those memories we hold so dear; and
- America was founded, preserved and has achieved a level of freedom and prosperity unknown to humankind, before or since, because of one factor above all others: compromise. In short, everyone can make a difference if we are willing to listen to and work with one another.
When the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775, the weighty issue of independence was on the agenda as delegations from the 13 colonies assembled in Philadelphia. As they had done during the First Continental Congress a year earlier, the delegates selected Virginia’s esteemed aristocrat Peyton Randolph to preside over the proceedings as president. Unexpectedly, Randolph soon was called back to Virginia on political business.
The delegates then elected a new president, Boston’s irascible provocateur John Hancock. But what to do about the seat left open by Randolph’s sudden departure? Virginia sent 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson to fill the void. As you watch the fireworks display on this Fourth of July, imagine how different history might have been had Randolph not returned to Virginia. And think about how Hancock and Jefferson rose to the occasion when destiny called.
Few pause to consider what happened to the Declaration of Independence, the physical document, after its approval in 1776. There were many heroes, now forgotten by history, who are responsible for preserving the precious original signed parchment. Charles Thompson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, was personally entrusted with the Declaration. He brought it with him to each session Congress convened, which became increasingly difficult over the years as the delegates fled the pursuit of the British army, holding deliberations in various locales around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.
When the United States government was formed in 1789, President Washington ordered custody of the Declaration to the new Department of State, led by its first secretary, and coincidentally the document’s author, Thomas Jefferson.
As the decades went by, the Declaration escaped many close calls. In 1814, then-Secretary of State James Monroe learned of the imminent British attack on Washington. Monroe ordered a clerk to anonymously carry the Declaration in a linen sack, evacuating it by horseback into the Virginia countryside. There it stayed for weeks as the Capitol and White House smoldered in rubble. In 1876, the Declaration traveled to Philadelphia for the centennial festivities, then was moved to the patent office in Washington to wait as a dispute raged about whether Philadelphia might be a more appropriate home for America’s most revered document.
Washington won the debate and fate intervened once again as the patent office burned to the ground shortly after the Declaration was moved back to the State Department.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Declaration was taken to Fort Knox, this time by armed escort, rather than linen sack. There it rode out the duration of the war, with one exception — it was briefly brought back to Washington to be on site for the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in 1943. Today it is displayed in the National Archives alongside the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is preserved thanks to countless individuals who knew its significance and heroically intervened when their moment arrived.
The very freedoms that allow us to enjoy this holiday were made possible by the settling of seemingly irreconcilable differences among the delegates of 13 diverse colonies. Those differences were deep and they were many. Big states v. small states. Geographic and regional disputes. Parochial concerns and disagreements about ownership of western lands. Questions about funding of the government, raising and fair distribution of revenue, and most urgently, financial and logistical support for the ongoing Revolutionary War.
Consideration of some items was postponed to focus on the immediate task at hand. Other disputes were resolved by the give-and-take debate and compromise so absent in our politics today. A later Continental Congress approved the Constitution after the famous “Connecticut Compromise,” which bridged the divide between large and small states by creating a bicameral national legislature, where states would have equal power in the Senate and citizens would have equal representation in the House. Those same legislative bodies today make up our 116th Congress.
The lesson is this: We all have a role to play in keeping our remarkable system together. Too much has been risked and sacrificed to allow our individual biases to tear apart our nation. Like the generations of Americans who came before us, let’s rise to the occasion and use our moment in history to solve problems, rather than point fingers. Let’s continue the tradition of debate and compromise and, most important, keep an eye toward the future and consider how the generations to come will look back at us.
Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is senior adviser for Avalere Health, a health care consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.