Republican radio address

For the weekend of July 4-5, 2009

Greetings, this is Josh Tardy, leader of the Republicans in the Maine House.

This weekend, Mainers will gather with family and friends to celebrate Independence Day with hot dogs and ball games and fireworks. With all the parties going on, it’s easy to forget the origins of this holiday and the tremendous sacrifices made by our ancestors to provide us with the blessings of liberty. It’s easy to forget the remarkable courage of those patriots who put everything on the line for the cause of freedom. And we seldom reflect on the profound last words of the Declaration of Independence, where the signers “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” As we celebrate this weekend, let’s remember the events that unfolded 233 years ago.

On July 4th, 1776, during a heat wave in the City of Philadelphia, 56 members of the Continental Congress from the 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence. The primary author was a young man named Thomas Jefferson. The signers understood that declaring rebellion against the English Crown, King George III, would condemn them to death if they were apprehended by the British. In the debate leading up to the actual signing, there was a vigorous discussion about treason and the gallows. One of the men present was Benjamin Franklin, who stressed the importance of unity in the face of the coming war. As he said that day, “We must hang together, gentlemen, or we will most assuredly hang separately.”

There’s a legend told about those final hours before the signing, a legend once recounted by Ronald Reagan. In the heat of the debate, a man rose and spoke. He is described as not a young man, but one who had to summon all his energy for an impassioned plea. He cited the grievances against the Crown listed in the Declaration. Finally, in a failing voice, he said: “They may turn every tree into a gallows, every hole into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment will never die. To the mechanic in the workshop, they will speak hope; to the slave in the mines, freedom. Sign that parchment. Sign if the next moment the noose is around your neck, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the Bible of the rights of man forever.”

He fell back, exhausted. The 56 delegates were swept up by his eloquence, and after the document was signed, they turned to thank the old man for his timely oratory. But he was nowhere to be found; nor could anyone be found who knew who he was or how he had come and gone out through the locked and guarded doors.

Who were these men who had come together in a building we now call Independence Hall? They were lawyers, merchants, physicians, plantation owners, land surveyors, ministers, and one man described as a scientist. That was Benjamin Franklin. We know some of the other names, of course – Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, the famed physician Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and two sets of brothers: John and Samuel Adams, of Massachusetts, and Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, of Virginia.

The stories of these men have not been told often enough. Nine of them died from battle wounds suffered while fighting for the Revolutionary Army. Five were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Two sons of signers died while fighting and two others had sons who were captured by the British.

John Hart of New Jersey was driven from the side of his desperately ill wife. For more than a year, he lived in the forest and in caves before returning to find his wife dead, his children vanished, and his property destroyed. Carter Braxton, a plantation owner from Virginia, lost all his ships, sold his home to pay his debts, and died in rags. Thomas Nelson, also from Virginia, personally urged George Washington to fire on his own home and destroy it when it became the headquarters for General Cornwallis. Nelson died bankrupt. Twelve others had their homes ransacked and burned by British soldiers.

That is the kind of heroism that the Fourth of July represents. It’s become a cliché to say that freedom isn’t free, but while we enjoy this holiday let us remember why we shoot off fireworks. The day before the signing of the Declaration, July 3rd, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, in Massachusetts. Looking forward to the historic events he knew would happen on July 4th, he wrote. “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the Great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations – from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forever more.”

This is Josh Tardy, wishing you a safe and happy Fourth of July.