At War on the Fourth
Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
July 4, 2005
On this Fourth of July, we at the National Archives honor especially those men and women—from the Revolution to the present—who have fought, bled, and given their lives so that all Americans might today enjoy the privileges of freedom and independence. We are honored this morning to have with us to read the Declaration of Independence two courageous wounded veterans of our current conflict in Iraq — U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Frank Washburn and U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Berle J. Sigman IV — representing their colleagues in every branch of the U.S. military. Pause for a moment to consider the extraordinary chronology of our nation's founding document, the Declaration of Independence. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare "that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." But no signing actually took place on July 4th, and only on July 19th did Congress vote to inscribe the document on parchment. The actual signing began, finally, on August 2nd, with at least one of the original 56 signers waiting until November to inscribe his name.
Yet it seemed crucial to the founders to convey the perception—the image—of a July 4th signing, if only to harden in public memory the impression of decisiveness and unity among supporters of the American rebellion against England. And correctly so, since we were at war then as we are at war today. Then as now, whatever disagreements over policies existed among Americans—and there were many such bitter policy disputes—the purposes and goals for which Americans fought were clearly understood. So was the profound cost of war (to borrow Churchill's phrase about a more recent struggle against tyranny) in "blood, toil, tears, and sweat."
Now, on this July 4th and those to follow as long as the American Republic endures, we perform an act of homage to those who have given their lives to help bring us this far as a people, linking through an act of generational communion today's political strife to the far more uncertain and turbulent years of the Revolution, connecting George Bush's 2005 America to George Washington's 1776.
Who could have imagined that the aspirations and purposes inscribed indelibly in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights would be not merely alive and well more than two centuries later but resonating freshly today as America's bravest men and women struggle to sustain our democracy and freedom throughout the world? Your presence here today bears witness to our hope that this Fourth of July (like those preceding and those to come) provides not only an occasion for fireworks and frivolity but remains a festival of remembrance, a day for partisan restraint and renewal of our common purposes as Americans. In this audience, I see in microcosm what John F. Kennedy called our 'nation of nations,' still—with all its flaws and mistakes—the world's major template for designing a free society.
As we listen to Lieutenant Washburn and Sergeant Sigman read, on behalf of the men and woman of the U.S. military, the Declaration of Independence's stirring avowal of sacrifice and patriotic unity amidst the fog of war abroad and doctrinal division at home, we might recall Benjamin Franklin's cautionary response when a Philadelphia bystander asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced: "a republic," Franklin reportedly snapped back, "if you can keep it." Can we "keep it" for the next 229 years? The work continues.