This week I would like to dedicate my blog to America, which on July 4, 2016, celebrated 240 years of independence from a tyrannical government under King George III of England. As a student and a former teacher of American history, I still stand in awe of the 56 men who stood together as the Continental Congress and agreed to a document like none that had come before it, or since. They put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, knowing they could be tried for treason by the Crown; yet, believing in Thomas Jefferson’s words so much, they were willing to risk their lives. Many of the fundamental rights for which they fought are the things we take for granted today.
Although we celebrate July 4th as the date the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was only adopted on that date. It was not signed until a month later. It took time for some of the delegates to obtain support from their assemblies, and it took two weeks to have someone clearly write the words out on parchment, a process known as ‘engrossing.” While doing some research, I discovered copies were made and sent out to the colonies; these are referred to as the Dunlap Broadsides because they were printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia. Twenty-six of these copies have been located, but could there be more still out there? It is estimated between 150 and 200 Dunlap Broadsides were printed. Can you imagine going through a trunk in your family’s attic and coming across one of these copies?
The Continental Congress met nine years after the Declaration of Independence was signed to write the document our government is based on, The Constitution of the United States of America, and it took them less than six months to do so. Imagine today’s Congress working that quickly on something this important. Later, James Madison argued for changes to the Constitution, and in 1789, twelve amendments were sent out to the states for approval. In 1791, ten of these amendments were ratified and became known as the Bill of Rights.
This wasn’t about politics, at least not what we know politics to be today. It wasn’t driven by polls or popularity. It wasn’t about who could offer you the most for your vote. For many colonists, the actions of these revolutionaries were not popular at all. But for the ones who felt change could only be brought about through their actions, it was about setting the fate of a new nation. It was about people who believed in their independence and right to govern themselves so strongly, they acted on it, and many fought and died for it. It was about people who saw the need to limit the role of government in their lives.
Several years ago, I went on a week long trip to Washington, DC, with my eighth grade American history students. I loved sharing my love of this country with some very bright and curious young people. I watched them ask intelligent questions of Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Herb Kohl. Visiting the memorials, the Supreme Court, and the Capitol with them was a joy. But the thing I regret most from my trip to Washington, DC, is not being able to visit the National Archives because it was closed for renovations. I will return one day specifically to view these vital documents of American history.
I would recommend reading The Federalist Papers, and legitimate biographies on the Founding Fathers: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. It will help you gain insight into what was at stake and why democracy is a fragile idea. If you can, I hope you will visit Washington, DC, and your state capitol. Also, listen to what politicians are not saying, as well as what they are saying. Sometimes things that seem good on the surface are not beneficial in the long term. And question each politician’s motives. Do they want to serve you or be exalted by their position? The founders of this country came together, argued, and negotiated to lay the foundation for us today. Don’t let it be in vain because we’ve become complacent or too dependent on the government. Study the history of this great nation, specifically the documents upon which it was founded, and make sure you have a role in its future. It is up to each and every American to know our history and take part in our government. That is how democracy works.
“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Thomas Jefferson
At the end of this blog, you will find the Bill of Rights. I hope you will look at it, as well as the founding documents of this nation. Read them and study them. Think about the gift we have been given, a gift that should neither be taken lightly, nor taken for granted. In order for our country to continue to be strong, we the people must take an active role to protect these rights and remember what those who came before us were willing to sacrifice to leave us this legacy.
THE BILL OF RIGHTS
Amendment I Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment III No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment IV The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Amendment VII In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment VIII Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.