The date was July 4, 1826 and the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Only three of the original 56 signers were still alive. Two of these signers who worked tirelessly drafting the original proclamation during those stifling hot days in the early summer of 1776 were invited to participate in the national celebration. John Adams, age 90, was at home at Peacefield, in Quincy, Massachusetts, while Thomas Jefferson, age 83, resided at Monticello, his estate near Charlottesville, Virginia. Unfortunately both men were too feeble to publicly celebrate the spirit of this momentous occasion, yet Jefferson nevertheless thanked and congratulated the citizens of Washington, DC. “Let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” Adam also toasted the approaching anniversary. “Independence forever” was his simple message. As fate would have it, both of these founding fathers died on that very anniversary, Jefferson at noon, and Adams a few hours later with the words “Jefferson lives” on his dying lips. Only one of the 56 signers, Charles Carroll of Maryland, remained alive 50 years on. He lived another six years, until November 1832, when he passed away at age 95.
Perhaps recalling Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he cautioned them to hold on to their freedom and to never to use it carelessly, these brave men, looking to divine providence for protection, gathered to ratify and sign the Declaration of Independence while mutually pledging to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor knowing full well the penalty would be death if they were captured. These were mostly men of means who had flourished under the tutelage of Great Britain and her King. Yet they valued liberty more, and many of them endured lasting hardships as a result of their patriotism. Some were forced to flee with their families. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned by the British forces sent to the upstart colonies to put down their rebellion. Nine took arms against the British and died from their wounds or other hardships during the Revolutionary War. Five were captured and charged as traitors, and were tortured before they died. Three had sons who were killed or captured during the war. It was a high price indeed to pay for freedom and liberty.
The centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence occurred in 1876, just eleven years after the end of the Civil War that divided the nation our Founding Fathers struggled to bring together. Many of the issues that divided the original signers gave rise to that great conflict, and states that seceded from the Union beginning in 1860 to form the Confederate States of America included four of the original thirteen colonies. The nation was licking its wounds, some of them still fresh a decade after that momentous conflict. There was little interest in celebrating the centennial.
The bicentennial in 1976 was a bit more festive. I recall watching the celebrations across the country on TV as we packed our small apartment in Tucson in preparation for our move cross country to the outskirts of Washington, DC, our current home. That evening, with an apartment full of boxes and expecting the movers first thing the following day, we walked to the University of Arizona campus where we watched the local fireworks. Upon our arrival in suburban Maryland that August, we spent a great deal of time wandering our nation’s capital in the throes of its big birthday gala. It was an exciting time to explore our new home.
Once again we are spending our summer in a small town in Maine. We have been coming here each summer for over a quarter of a century, yet only now am I truly beginning to appreciate its wonderful history. In 1736, a group of citizens of Gloucester, Massachusetts petitioned the colonial governor to settle land near the coast in the Province of Maine (it would not become a state until 1822). The petition was granted the following year, and in 1739 a group of settlers cut a road from Yarmouth, on Casco Bay north of what is now Portland, through the intervale to the headwaters of the Royal River at Sabbathday Lake where our summer cottage is located. A blockhouse fortification and palisades were erected on the high ridge line of Gloucester Hill circa 1753-1754 during the French and Indian War. The town of New Gloucester was eventually incorporated in 1774 at a time when the thirteen American colonies were organizing to express general dissatisfaction with their treatment by the British crown. Upon incorporation the good people of New Gloucester made it known that it would gladly contribute to the common defense of the united colonies in support of full independence.
So this morning we went down to the Lower Village, not far from the site of the original fortification and palisades, to the New Gloucester meetinghouse dating back to circa 1772. Here members of the local historical society, townspeople and visitors gather each July 4th for a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. This year we commemorate the 238th anniversary of the ratification and announcement of that most eloquent of documents which gave birth to the American republic. I had forgotten how long it is - 1,336 words not counting all the signatures – and listening to those words, and contemplating their full meaning and intent, one quickly realizes that there is more to the 4th of July than fireworks, family picnics, and a day off from work. The Declaration of Independence is America 101; it expresses what we as Americans feel we deserve and why. I had forgotten this until three years ago when I participated in the reading at the New Gloucester meeting house, something I have done every year since. It is a refreshing of our recollections as we read and listened to those words spoken in unison which make the sound of people standing up for what they believe in. Read them, speak them, share them, and more importantly, remember them and don’t let anyone tell you they are no longer relevant. I think a lot of us have forgotten what wonderful and beautiful music these words can be. Raise up your voices and be free!
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