In the community of Surfside, Florida, solemnity will supplant flag waving and fireworks to honor those lost in the June 24th condo tower collapse. A local Rabbi, shunned alacrity, declaring, “The only thing that could really benefit the affected members of Surfside community would be kindness.” Other visitors to Surfside chose to scale back in a desultory manner, foregoing planned celebrations of July 4th. Reuters reported, “solidarity will replace fireworks and flag waving celebrations where one-hundred-twenty-four people are missing, and twenty-four reported dead.” Many support the decision. Some opine, “Can’t we do both?” Understanding the pain and loss, yet celebrating one of the most hallowed events in America’s 245 year history is powerful symbolism to millions. Rather than drawn swords, there’s no reason to diminish either.
Tragedy and loss of life is a quotidian event. Our Declaration of Independence still heralds to American citizens of valor, sacrifice, honor and loss, for an idea that transcends any other experiment on this planet. It ignited freedom and liberty. The cause of the structure’s collapse is unknown to the public. Authorities search the rubble, while Surfside skips July 4th celebration. Is it a heart matter? Jesus was asked about the the collapse of the tower of Siloam, killing 18 people, and had they sinned? As the crowd ducked for cover, He turned the narrative to “unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” Even accidents have eternal implications.
Fifty-six of our Framers voluntarily pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Nine died from wounds during the Revolutionary War. Many were captured or imprisoned. Wives and children were murdered, jailed, mistreated, or left penniless. Twelve signers’ houses were torched to the ground. Seventeen lost every earthly possession. Yet, no signer defected. Honor above all else. Defying King George and calling him a tyrant is a would-be widow maker. The signers knew it. Thereafter, the British would declare them as traitors. Of their own volition, they heaped upon themselves and family unspeakable treatment and years of scorn. At times liberty must have seemed chimerical.
That sacred document was more than a Declaration, according to our 30th President Calvin Coolidge, on July 5, 1926, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He reminded Americans that “in its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document.” Perhaps more Americans need to contemplate what Coolidge said, “Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. They were people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.”
President Coolidge understood it transcended more than wanting to break the shackles from Great Britain. He continued his firebrand message, “The things of the Spirit must come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.” Elevating the language, he continued, “We must not sink into pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.” His pulpit was that of the Presidency. Sounding more like 18th century evangelist George Whitefield.
Too few today, understand what compelled such valiant men, willing to engage in a battle that would predictably cost them everything. This heritage of willingness to fight for liberty was memorialized on September 23, 1779, that brought one of the most storied battles in U.S. history. It’s yet unclear whether bravery is in the DNA. It does appear to be contagious. The ink had dried on the Founders’ document, where John Hancock’s signature far exceeds the size of his cohorts. He reportedly signed it so large that, “King George can read his name without spectacles.” Captain John Paul Jones, in that spirit, commanded an aging vessel, the Bonhomme Richard, cruising off England’s coast, when he encountered the British war ship, The Serapis. Jones engaged the enemy as night fell. When opening the broadsides, two of the Richard’s old cannons exploded, killing crew members and ripping away a portion of the ship’s side. Now in the cross-hairs of The Serpis, it fired and hit the Richard’s broadside into the badly stricken ship. It appeared all was lost.
The Richard was below the waterline and leaking badly. Jones knew his only chance was to ram into the British vessel, and board her decks. When it appeared hopeless, the British commander asked if the Richard was ready to surrender. It was then that Jones hurled his famous reply, “I have not yet to begin to fight!” The British reportedly shook their heads in disbelief, as the Americans continued to fight. One American sailor managed to toss a grenade into an open hatch on The Serpis’s deck. He found a supply of gunpowder that ripped through the ships hull. Both vessels were now drifting wrecks. After a three and a half hour savage battle by moonlight, much of which was hand-to-hand, the British surrendered. While the American vessel sank beneath the waves, the crew of the Richard took over the British vessel. The historic words of Captain John Paul Jones echo, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Gazing into the rear view mirror of history, considering the heroic actions of our Founders, and the outcome of our Republic, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact; they were flesh and blood mortals such as we. Visionaries. Brilliant. Indefatigable. Yet, with chinks in their armor too. From them came such words of valor, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem as a tribute to Patriots who fought at Lexington and Concord. The last line, “Spirit, that made those heroes dare, To die, and leave their children free, Bid Time and Nature gently spare, The shaft we raise to them and thee.” We don’t worship the Founders. We revere and honor them. Warts and all. Their ideas still inspire us today.
Today we stand as Patriots stood, in the past, for the cause of freedom and virtuous liberty. Like words from George Washington, it’s our duty and responsibility to serve as “future guardians of the liberties of the country.” In context, what would it take to overshadow the hallowed meaning of the Declaration of Independence for you? Since the Revolutionary war ended, nearly 650,000 have died in battle. Another half-million in non-combat related causes. This isn’t an odium on choices. But perspective and context. What if one was to celebrate our liberty and freedom every day? What do you think?
Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email’s firstname.lastname@example.org