July 4, 1776
July 4, 1776. It was just another summer day in London, England. But across the Atlantic Ocean , in Philadelphia , something happened that July day that changed the world forever. Some men stood up and signed their names to a document that branded them as traitors. There was courage among them, and fear too, so they joked to help break the tension. Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, a plantation owner and a huge man, turned and spoke to skinny Elbridge Gerry , a prosperous Massachusetts merchant, and said, "I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead."
Later, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Rush remembered the solemnness of the proceedings in a letter he wrote to John Adams of Massachusetts: "Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the president of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants ?"
Why were these men willing to risk their lives? What did they want? They wanted to be free. They wanted libertyfor themselves and for all the English colonists living in the thirteen colonies that stretched like a ribbon along the eastern edge of the North American continent . This is the story of their quest for freedom and its astonishing outcome.
The document that they signed on July 4, 1776 was a declaration that proclaimed their independence. These men were determined to be free to run their own country and write their own laws. That wasn't done in the world they knew. Kings and emperors ruled and people obeyed. This declaration carried a message that would resonate around the world. It would come to mean much more than anyone that day could have imagined, or perhaps even intended. It proclaimed, "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."
But is it true that "all men are created equal"? And when they wrote "men" did the signers mean just men? Just white men ? Or all people in all places? Let's journey back in time and see what we can discover.