The American Revolution was not as radical as the social upheaval which took inspiration from it a few years later, the French Revolution; nor even as the various bloodless overthrows of Communist states two decades ago.
The Revolutionary War was a protracted element in, essentially, a change of management over the Colonies. Exalted home rule.
Self-government -- that is, a larger degree of self-government -- was the goal of that conflict. It succeeded, and its effects were indeed profound.
Yet without two indispensable components, the freedom from the Crown was a mere step or two more significant than other historical "adjustments" such as accommodations of princes within the Holy Roman Empire or "independent" status of countries within hegemonic domains. Friction, and little more, persisted between the nascent United States and the mother country for a couple generations. But the eventual assumptions of eternal political and military alliances between Washington and London, and the American public's continual fawning over an anachronistic monarchy, challenge the façade of a profound revolution against Whitehall as the history books maintain.
What makes the larger fact of the American Revolution significant in world history, and what should be the center of any July Fourth commemoration, is a pair of pieces of paper. To call them such is not to minimize the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but to focus all the reverence we can summon, and all the inspiration we can draw, from these documents: the profound weight of their words.
For the Declaration and the Constitution were far more than enabling documents for an armed revolt, and an organizational chart for a governmental start-up. The "Framers" did more than seize the moments in contemporary and shifting struggles of the day. They surveyed humankind's records for pitfalls and guideposts; they steeped themselves in disciplines of history and philosophy; they applied all their wisdom -- and there was much among the confreres in Philadelphia during their deliberations -- to the practical challenges of human nature.
More, those modest firebrands and radical sages, through those two documents, shouted at history. Virtually shaking their fists or leaping in joy, they proclaimed to their predecessors of all ages and places, that self-government was possible; that citizens could manage their fates; that the yearnings of ancient Greek states, of Roman senators, of autonomous tribes in those misty Germanic forests, were being fulfilled. But the Framers also turned, as it were, and shouted a promise to the future: that a Republic of states could be established and maintained in a stable society; that a working document could codify the balance of the separate categories of governance; all established by the rule of law, and protecting the rights of minorities.
Least of all were the Framers delusional, not as have been America's "wiser" subsequent leaders, generation by generation.
What have you given us? was the question put to Benjamin Franklin. "A republic, madam," he answered -- quickly warning, "if you can keep it."
John Adams emphasized the difference between a Republic and a democracy when he wrote: "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide."
Thomas Jefferson, more sanguine about democratic impulses, nevertheless wrote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Abraham Lincoln characterized the impetus behind the Declaration: "[The] representatives in old Independence Hall said to the whole world of men: 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity." This was in a speech, by the way, in which he discussed the intention of many Framers to abolish slavery after independence.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote: "Into our care the ten talents have been entrusted; and we are to be pardoned neither if we squander and waste them, nor yet if we hide them in a napkin; for they must be fruitful in our hands. Ever throughout the ages, at all times and among all peoples, prosperity has been fraught with danger, and it behooves us to beseech the Giver of all things that we may not fall into lose of ease and luxury; that we may not lose our sense of moral responsibility; that we may not forget our duty to God, and to our neighbor. ... We are not threatened by foes from without. The foes from whom we should pray to be delivered are our own passions, appetites, and follies; and against these there is always need that we should war."
The biblical language of America's leaders was seldom a mere context for election-day speeches. From Founders to Framers to civic saviors like Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the principles of the Bible, indeed the words of Christ, were continually evoked. Indeed, in a way that seems almost foreign today, as "givens" of public discourse, as confessions of personal values and actions.
Washington prayed and requested prayer. Jefferson understood the role of religion so well that he wrote Statutes of Religious Freedom, and wanted a "wall of separation" to protect religion from government, contemporary distortions to the contrary notwithstanding. And the Franklin who was concerned about the fragility of republicanism, and a supposed "Deist," was the Framer who recommended that the Constitutional Convention open each day with a prayer to seek God's guidance.
There were Deists indeed among the Framers, and believers of all stripes and degrees of devotion. Yet the important factor about the principles of those people, is that the Bible was acknowledged to be the repository of humanity's greatest wisdom, that it contained blueprints for the establishment and maintenance of a just, workable, and, yes, happiness-pursuing people.
However, the Judgment-Day testimonies (for we cannot know their hearts) of those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, even as we understand their stated broad faiths and values, is less important than the faith of the people they represented in Philadelphia so many years ago.
America was not merely settled by pilgrims and colonists. It was dedicated uncountable times and in diverse ways. Dedicated to God, to the furtherance of His kingdom, to the spread of the Gospel. This was done on many shores, by many denominations Catholic and Protestant, in formal ways like ceremonies planting flags, by written covenants, by solemn oaths. Before Puritan John Winthrop disembarked on Massachusetts' shores he prayed and preached to his crew about dedicating this "new land" to the Lord.
These acts were committed unto God Almighty, never on behalf of democracy or representative government, of capitalism, or of socialism. Church meeting-houses were among the first constructions in every community, and church leaders were often the civic leaders. The very first colleges (Harvard? Yale? Princeton? Yes, the schools that became today's very secular universities) were dedicated to propagation of the Christian faith.
Christianity permeated the life of the Colonies. The independence that many Colonists maintained from the Anglican Church -- the denomination of the Crown -- was an indispensable component of the political and economic independence they likewise sought.
We need look no further into history, for substantiation of this essential aspect of the Colonists' character, than to recall the Great Revivals that periodically swept the land. These were not isolated events. They had major impacts on the culture that spawned the Revolution; that fortified a populace finally ready to sacrifice for end of slavery; and so forth. When immense religious revivals take hold of people and change the course of history, we witness humanity voting not with heads for candidates, not with feet to labor or to migrate, but with hearts to redeem a culture.
The first of America's Great Revivals occurred in the generation preceding the Revolution, Mighty preachers whose services attracted thousands (and whose followers could be counted, ultimately, in the millions) were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Their listeners were members of every sect and no sects. They preached about judgment, God's love, and the responsibilities of each person's standing with Christ as a personal relationship with Him and individual responsibility toward others. Whitefield, especially, was known in all the Colonies, and attracted ecstatic crowds wherever he preached. His friend Ben Franklin once estimated a crowd of listeners at 30,000.
John Adams later wrote: "The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations."
In the first decade of the 19th century another "Great Awakening" broke out. Ecstatic revivals at Yale and in New York State were its first manifestations, but leaders like Timothy Dwight (Edwards' grandson) and Charles G. Finney, a former attorney, led people to closer commitments to Christ. Revival-type sermons and extended camp-meeting worship spread to the frontier. Many historians noted the civilizing aspects of religion in frontier communities. Theodore Roosevelt, in his epic Winning of the West, describes frontier preachers and community worship, noting the far-reaching effects on the American character.
It can argued that a later "Great Awakening" occurred before the Civil War. Christianity fueled the Abolition movement -- the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, reads like a Bible tract -- and one interesting manifestation was the "Noon Hour Gathering" in New York City. Businessman Jeremiah Lanphier began holding informal prayer meetings on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan in September of 1857. Attendance grew; services were held daily instead of weekly; larger venues were needed; in six months more than 10,000 met in lunchtime prayer meetings, now at various places around New York; eventually the format touched more than a million people who made conversion decisions.
Not just the Abolition movement, but women's suffrage, social and industrial reforms, and the Civil Rights movement can be seen as distressed kindling that were ignited by sparks of Christian activism in America.
To return to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Americans must remind themselves that these great signposts in humankind's history neither occurred in vacuums nor were mere pressure-valves of folks upset about a tax on their tea. They grew from biblical traditions. They were informed by religious values. They took inspiration from Christian activism. They invoked God. This July Fourth -- every July Fourth -- we should look beyond the celebrations, remember more than the facts of their controversies, revere them as more than relics, and even consider more than what they say. We need to remember, and to perpetuate, what inspired them.
Invoking here, a couple times, the name of Theodore Roosevelt, a leader who inherited and bequeathed great patriotic visions as well as any of the Founders and Framers, reminds us of a phrase associated with him: Manifest Destiny. As a historian, as a rancher in the West, as a soldier in the Spanish-American War, and as a policymaking statesman in the presidency, TR surely was the embodiment of this theory that the United States properly was to be sovereign over the American continent.
TR's advocacy was less commercial or military than it was a historical, even a racial, postulate: he wrote about the imperatives of world history and advance (and decline) of nations and nation-states. What he reckoned to be beneficial, however, he did not believe to be inevitable. One might say that he was forever more focused on the American nation -- that is, the soul and character of its people -- than the country of the United States. Systems could come and go, which is why he was first, last, and always a reformer. But his most earnest exhortations were to people as individuals. Not to middle classes or other classes: to all classes. To "old stock" and brand-new immigrants.
"Manifest Destiny" can have a different meaning than the policy-label applied to, and adopted by, statesmen of the late 19th-century. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once attempted to describe the vastness of Mother Russia after he visited it for the first time. He said its borders were not East and West but ground and sky. In the same way, it occurs to me, all Americans, especially on this Fourth of July, should think of America.
If that conjures an image of a Shining City on a Hill, remember not only a man who most recently referred to it, Ronald Reagan; but the preacher he quoted, the Puritan John Winthrop; and the source of Winthrop's reference, Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
We are indeed "sea to shining sea," with many wondrous things in between. But let us remember the solemn acts of dedication of settlers who came to the shores. It is a hard thing to undo acts of consecration to God, and more dangerous still to dismiss them. Let us recall the Christian bases of our sacred/civil documents. Let us recognize that biblical revival has preceded every worthwhile move of our people.
And in keeping with these truths, let us, this July Fourth, think for a moment about the real borders of the American nation: from our soil, our people, our land -- upwards, to Heaven.