With a great army massed against their struggling rebellion, 56 Americans gathered in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776. The document before them had been crafted with care and forged by vigorous debate; all that remained was to sign it. They knew that to do so was an act of irreversible defiance. The words "treason, the gallows, the headsman's axe" echoed through the meeting hall.
|Senator Susan M. Collins represents the State of Maine in the U.S. Senate.|
"Stepping forward to sign the Declaration," wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush years later, "was like signing your own death warrant."
Yet he signed, as did the 55 others. Lawyers, physicians, merchants, tradesmen, and farmers, they had achieved prosperity and stature, but they valued freedom more. To that sacred cause, they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their honor. For many, the price of that pledge was dear. As just one example, Carter Braxton, a wealthy delegate from Virginia, lost his entire fleet of merchant ships in the Revolution and had to sell his home to pay his debts. Although he died in poverty, he lived to see the birth of a nation founded upon the unalienable rights of liberty, equality, and justice.
This week, we celebrate the 231st anniversary of that birthday with fireworks, parades, and picnics. We celebrate not just the birth of a nation, but the birth of an idea. From that day in 1776 to this day in 2007, freedom has had a home and a defender.
On Independence Day, we pause to give thanks to that founding generation of Americans who risked all to overcome tyranny so that they, and all the generations to come, could live in freedom. We give thanks to the Americans who have answered the call to serve and sacrifice for the ideals of our founding. Throughout our history and around the world, the men and women of the United States armed forces have defended our freedom against all threats. We give thanks to the veterans of yesterday and to those who serve today.
America's work in the world does not end with the removal of grave threats. The Declaration of Independence holds a promise for all mankind. Because Americans believe that freedom is an unalienable right, we value the freedom of every nation. We protect our friends. We raise up former enemies to be our friends.
The Founders did not, they could not, create a perfect nation. Instead, they created a nation that empowers those who seek to advance liberty and equal rights for all. We honor their genius every time we cast a ballot, every time we speak our minds without fear of reprisal, every time we engage in thoughtful and respectful debate, every time free men and women band together to bring about peaceful change. The Founders created more than a system of government; they created a philosophy of self-governance that has withstood the test of time.
That philosophy, and the democratic principles it embraces, are what hold us together today. We are a people of many ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, but we are a country united by those fundamentals bestowed upon us through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that followed. Our unity has been shaken in trying times throughout our history, but our commitment to carry on the work begun by the Founders has given us the strength to resolve our differences, to evolve, and to grow as a democracy.
To be an American, whether by birth or choice, is a precious gift. As citizens of this good nation, we can all be proud of our heritage and confident in our future. The ideals of July 4th, 1776, still speak to us and to all humanity.