By the time the Continental Congress declared independence in 1776, the British government had done quite a bit to provoke it. Colonists had been resisting Parliament's authority for almost a decade. But many American patriots wanted to remain loyal to King George III right up until the American Prohibitory Act of December 1775.
The king not only brushed aside the colonists' legitimate grievances but declared them to be in rebellion and cast them outside royal protection. The act authorized a war against them — a naval blockade of their ports and the hiring of foreign mercenaries to suppress their rebellion.
|'There are signs that Americans have become too comfortable for freedom. In one area after another, they turn to government to eliminate all risk.'|
So in retrospect, it might seem an easy decision for the Founding Fathers to declare independence on July 4, 1776. As John Adams noted at the time, the crown had practically done it for them. Yet it was not easy at all. It could have only ended two ways. The most likely was for the world's most powerful army to put down their rebellion and hang them all. The other was potentially worse — if by some miracle they prevailed, they'd have to govern themselves, risking a rapid and spectacular failure.
The Declaration of Independence epitomizes a defining American trait: taking enormous risks. Colonists had already chosen an uncertain future in a distant land. The republican form of government the Founders adopted was thought both novel and dangerous for the level of freedom it afforded. Religious and press freedom were still relatively recent innovations, laden with potential for violence and rebellion.
But the Founders took those risks, and their spirit of risk-taking lived on. It produced some of the most glorious (as with the struggle for blacks' civil rights) and ignominious (as with secession) moments in the nation's history. It defined the U.S. economy, making it the hotbed of creativity, invention and productivity to bail out the rest of the world in the 20th century and to lead it into the 21st.
There are signs that Americans have become too comfortable for freedom. In one area after another, they turn to government to eliminate all risk. Freedom of the press remains so risky that the Obama administration has set new standards for government secrecy, prosecuting leakers and punishing whistleblowers. Freedom of speech remains risky enough that multiple Democratic senators will soon vote to weaken the First Amendment. Freedom of religion remains risky enough that countless politicians and four Supreme Court justices would cast it aside to impose a government mandate on business.
Yet freedom has always been precarious in America. It was so when John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. It was so when governments at all levels systematically and forcibly repressed citizens' freedoms in order to preserve slavery and then Jim Crow. It was so when the government interned American citizens of Japanese descent.
Freedom is very much at risk this Independence Day weekend -- but then it always has been. As President Ronald Reagan said, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.