When minister and president of Princeton College Jonathan Witherspoon arrived in Philadelphia in June 1776, the fortunes of the American colonists were about to take a disastrous turn. In July an enormous British army would seize New York City, sending George Washington’s army flying in headlong retreat. In less than six months British soldiers would ransack Witherspoon’s beloved Princeton, and drive its students into hiding. Despite passing a “Unanimous Declaration of the United States of America” on July 4, the cause of independence seemed lost almost before it had begun.
But not to Witherspoon. The only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, he believed that God’s Providence was guiding the fate of the American colonies, even though the power arrayed against them never looked so powerful. Witherspoon believed much more than unjust taxes, or even the fate of America, was at stake. “I think we may safely say,” he wrote, “it is likely to be an important era in the history of mankind.”
Two hundred and thirty-six years later, he’s been proven right. What we celebrate on July 4th was not just the birth of a new nation but a new idea–an idea as bright and luminous as the firework displays we watch exploding across the night sky.
It’s contained in the words of the Declaration which seem the most familiar, but whose deeper meaning sometimes gets lost.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”
The concept of divinely endowed rights was nothing new in 1776. It was the word “unalienable” that was explosive. On the surface, it simply reminds us that the rights we’re given by our Creator can’t be legitimately taken away by tyrants or dictators.
But the use of the word was, and is, more radical than that. In the eighteenth century unalienable property was something that couldn’t be sold or even given away. The possessor was stuck with it, for good. And the Fourth of July teaches us that we’re stuck with our freedom, no matter how hard a burden it sometimes seems, and how many times we seem determined to throw it away.
Even if people freely elect a tyrant, the Declaration says, and give him the power to make his word law; they can’t surrender the one thing no one can take away: their rights as individuals. And the people as a people, can snatch back that power they thought was lost forever, anytime they wish.
Indeed, they are constituted by God to do just that.
This was a radical rereading of history. Despotism may be the political norm going back to the pharaohs, Witherspoon and the signers were saying, but it is also profoundly unnatural. It represents a perversion of the instinctual yearning to live in liberty, which no laws or armies or powers can ever completely extinguish.
It was also a beacon of hope–then as now. Freedom is our gift from God, forever. No matter how grim and powerful the forces aligned it against may seem, there will always be the chance to reverse them, and to resume course.
Jonathan Witherspoon saw that hope on that July 4th , and again a year later when he reopened Princeton, and wrote an open letter to his students, summoning them back to their damaged and deserted school. ‘It is to be hoped,” it said, “that all of them have been pursuing their studies separately as well as their circumstances would allow...and they that they will now apply with extraordinary diligence, to recover the ground that has been necessarily lost.”
Time to regain lost ground. Time to remember on this Fourth the duty we
have to our own freedom.