They were lawyers, planters, musicians, merchants, scientists, printers, physicians, and soldiers who, together, took a public stance that amounted to treason. It was success or, basically, death–and no matter how much we can critique them with our modern eyes for failing to include lots of people in their definition of “we” and “people”, the truth remains that it all would have been easier for these comfortable individuals to continue with their comfortable lives. But they didn’t do what was easy. They did what they thought was right.
Someday, hundreds of years from now, this holiday will be a footnote of history along with the nation-state that observed it, and yet the document that formalized the American revolution and contributed to a global trajectory towards human rights and democracy will most surely be remembered for both its vision and the power of its prose:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Whenever I am confronted with a student who tells me that my PhD is “just a piece of paper” and “education is not the real world”, I tend to think about these educated men, having read the New Testament and the Iliad in Greek and Montesquieu in French, signing a seditious document, and changing the real world forever.