Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago, representatives of the 13 American colonies of Great Britain put pen to paper in a bold declaration of their intent to pursue self-rule. While that right of self-determination would not be realized for another seven years, we recognize July 4 — the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted by members of the Continental Congress — as our nation’s birthday.
The immensity of that declaration may not be fully appreciated today, as our nation has largely enjoyed the unalienable rights laid out by Thomas Jefferson — including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — for more than 200 years. But at that time, demanding emancipation from the world’s greatest political and military power was not an act lightly considered. The governing powers in Great Britain certainly were not inclined to oblige such an audacious request, and many colonists were reluctant — if not outright opposed — to cut ties with the mother country.
The declaration, therefore, was written not just for the king of England, not just for the members of British Parliament, and not just for the American colonists — it was written for a global audience. In a very real sense, our nation’s founding fathers were making their case before “the opinions of mankind” — in effect, serving an indictment on the crown.
And the global audience at the time was much like Great Britain. While England’s Parliament overthrew the monarchy there in 1649, by 1660 the crown was restored. The French government which allied itself to the American colonists was itself a monarchy that would be overthrown by its citizens later in the 18th century. Kings and emperors ruled the world at the very time America declared it was done with kings and emperors. That was a bold statement of independence.
As impressive a document as the Declaration of Independence has proven to be, and regardless of the weight or consequence of the 56 signatures affixed to that declaration, it would take more than words on paper to alter the course of history. That task had already fallen to the Minute Men, to the colonial militia — some of whom might have previously served alongside British Redcoats defending the colonies in skirmishes with Native Americans or the French. While many militiamen would form the Continental Army as a professional force to tilt against the powerful British Army, others would remain in local militia units, on guard against any threat.
One of the complaints lodged against the British in the Declaration of Independence was England’s practice of maintaining a standing army in the colonies, even in times of peace. The British army was essentially immune to colonial civil authority, and colonists were frequently ordered to provide food and lodging to British soldiers, without compensation. Once America had won her independence, her Army was greatly reduced. The role of defense largely returned to the local militias — the forerunners of today’s National Guard. This practice of building up the military and drawing it down again would continue for scores of years, until the United States’ responsibilities as a world power required maintaining a sizable standing military.
Much of today’s military is effectively hidden from public view, living and training on military reservations across the country. Members of the National Guard, however, continue to live and work in cities and towns in every state and territory, maintaining a vital connection between the citizen and the military. Unlike the Redcoats who were unwelcome boarders during colonial days, the men and women of the National Guard are neighbors, friends and coworkers.
The freedom sought in the Declaration of Independence, won in eight years of fighting the strongest nation on earth, and maintained in conflicts ever since, was the right of self-determination. Our nation’s dedication to equality is expressed in the Armed Forces, as the military continues to provide new opportunities and repeal old barriers for those determined to serve their country. We share the cloth of our nation’s uniform in this sense.
American democracy began as a noble experiment that endured and continues to be improved because of people committed to the idea of liberty. In the same way, the U.S. military — and the National Guard in particular — endures and improves because of the dedication, sacrifice and innovation of its members. And so long as that spirit lives in our hearts, then the stars and stripes will continue to fly over the land of the free and the home of the brave.