Two hundred and forty-one years ago, the values of our nation were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence – our country’s most important historical document. But this Independence Day, we should take time to remember the courage, virtue, and talents of our Founders, who turned its words to action and delivered our liberty.
I mean more than simply remembering the Founding Fathers. I mean reflecting on the qualities they each embodied, qualities which emboldened them to defy the English crown, overcome a well-organized, experienced British military, and forge a new country – one in which “all men are created equal.”
Consider our first three presidents.
Without the sheer courage of George Washington, the American revolutionaries would have faced an impossible struggle against the British forces. While there were other commanders who were brilliant tacticians and others with as much, or more experience in war. Washington’s contagious bravery and unwavering determination, battle after battle, helped a relatively small Continental Army persevere and ultimately defeat tens of thousands of British soldiers.
Fearlessness was central to Washington’s character. Even decades before the Revolution, when Washington, served as a major in the French and Indian War at just 22, he sent a letter home to his brother, John. In it he wrote, “The right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy's fire ... I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound."
It is no surprise that Washington was unanimously chosen to be the first leader of our nation in 1789. He was a symbol of American courage, honor, and valor.
Next, consider the unshakable principles of John Adams, our nation’s second president and first vice president under Washington. Adams, a lawyer by trade, was an integral force in driving out country to seek independence from Britain. He was a member of both Continental Congresses and one of the chief political philosophers of our new Republic.
Yet, despite being one of our nation's most ardent revolutionaries, in 1770 Adams successfully defended eight of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre – one of the sparks that led to the Revolution. This was a tremendously unpopular move for him at the time. However, Adams believed so much in the importance of an impartial, even-handed judicial system, where the accused have a right to sound legal defense, that he resolved to ensure that mob rule did not prevail. Six of the officers were acquitted, while the other two pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Finally, Thomas Jefferson brought tremendous intelligence to America’s legacy. It was Jefferson’s hand that penned the long list of charges against King George III and proclaimed America’s independence from Great Britain, saying “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
John Adams insisted that Jefferson, who was then 33, write the declaration, saying Jefferson was a Virginian, popular, and “you can write ten times better than I can,” according to a letter Adams wrote to his former secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, on August 6, 1822.
In the letter, Adams wrote that when he and Jefferson presented the draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Committee of Five – those delegates of the Second Continental Congress charged with producing the document – “It was read and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized anything.”
After the revolution, Jefferson’s love of scholarship and curiosity led him to found the University of Virginia, and late in his life, he sold his vast library to the United States, starting what would later become the Library of Congress.
Our nation's first three presidents illustrate only a small share of the virtues held by our Founding Fathers.
Benjamin Franklin was an endlessly energetic entrepreneur and inventor, Alexander Hamilton had unmatched perseverance, John Jay brought wisdom that shaped our first Supreme Court, and James Madison’s ability to lead earned him the title “Father of the Constitution” after he drafted the Constitution and spearheaded its ratification.
This Independence Day, we should all remember courage, strength of character, and virtues of our Founding Fathers, because these virtues – more than any historical document – embody the principles and values that will anchor the United States through the next 241 years.
Callista and I hope you and your families have a very happy, safe, and reflective Independence Day.
Syndicated columnist and author of Understanding Trump, Newt Gingrich is a former Republican Speaker of the House.