British troops captured five signers of the Declaration of Independence before the end of the Revolutionary War. They could have faced death by hanging had the British government classified them as traitors. British soldiers and loyalists ransacked and seized 12 of the signers’ homes.
While famously signing his name to our founding document with a generous hand, John Hancock reportedly said, “His majesty can now read my name without glasses. And he can double the reward on my head.”
To declare independence from a mighty empire was no small matter for the 56 signers. They placed their lives, as well as the lives of their families, at great risk. By the time their bold, perilous acts had entered the annals of history, the sting of danger had been removed. We might even fall asleep as we read about them today while sitting on a sunny beach, riding in a train car, or sprawled in a comfortable armchair with a cup of coffee or cold beer in hand.
Of course, the men who made July 4th Independence Day had no time for rest. John Paul Jones, the Scottish sailor remembered as the “Father of the American Navy” and entombed at the U.S. Naval Academy chased danger with these words, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
Patrick Henry’s declaration might as well have been shot from a cannon when he proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death,” at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. While campaigning on the battlefield, General George Washington steeled his men, “We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die.” “Liberty must at all hazards be supported,” John Adams reasoned with his fellow colonists in a lawyerly way.
History can be much more than an entertaining way to pass a pleasant afternoon in the Lehigh Valley. It can double as a moral compass. In reading about these brave men, we realize they abandoned their comfort zones for risky futures as they sought a greater good for themselves and future generations.
Rather than crossing the icy Delaware River on a bitter Christmas Eve night, George Washington could have rested by a well-lit fire in comfort and ease at his Mount Vernon estate. John Adams’ beloved wife, Abigail, faced imminent danger their house would be burned down by British soldiers, while he sailed twice to Europe on dangerous seas in service to his new nation. Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy while seeking crucial information for General Washington from behind British lines.
While few of us will perform heroic acts during our own lifetimes, each one of us is continually presented with moral choices. And while our choices are not likely to be as momentous as the shot heard round the world at Old North Bridge in Concord, they can combine to make the neighborhoods and villages in which we live better places.
Holidays like Independence Day serve many useful purposes. They provide a good reason to grill burgers and hot dogs on the barbecue, gather with neighbors to cheer fireworks displays, join with family and friends, throw the ball around with our children, set off for the mountains or beaches or simply watch the clouds roll by while stretched out in a hammock.
These holidays also provide an opportunity to review the march of history. The courage and bravery of others can be used as a weight against which we balance our own actions. Whether we are starting a business, reporting to work, raising children, comforting a friend or greeting a neighbor, we are engaged in actions that affect others.
While we may not be fighting for liberty, we have the opportunity to make the world a better place with just about everything we do.
Happy Independence Day.
Kevin McPoyle is president of KMRD Partners Inc., a risk management consulting and insurance brokerage firm in Warrington. He can be reached at [email protected]