As we celebrate America’s Independence Day, I am reminded of something Ronald Reagan said several decades ago. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from becoming extinct. Freedom is not passed down from one generation to the next through the blood stream. Freedom must be fought for and defended by each generation, otherwise you will be setting on your front porch in your old age, telling your children and your grand children what it was like to live in America, when men were free.”
When our Founding Fathers pledged their “lives, their fortune and their sacred honor” they meant it. They were willing to give up the illusion of security under the British crown for the messy, demanding and costly process of becoming free. They were not afraid to take a side.
They committed an act of treason, punishable by death in gruesome ways, by signing the Declaration of Independence. They spent time away from their homes and their families because of their love of liberty and their whole-hearted commitment to this nation. Benjamin Franklin missed his daughter’s wedding and, to his great sorrow, the death and funeral of his wife because of his commitments internationally. Abigail Adams gave birth to a stillborn daughter while her husband was away in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson lost a 2-year-old daughter to whooping cough. It took seven months for word to reach him in France.
Seventeen of the 56 signers actually fought in the American Revolution. Five were captured by the British and one of those, Richard Stockton, never recovered from his incarceration. He died in 1781. Thomas McKean of Delaware wrote in a letter that he was “hunted like a fox by the enemy – compelled to remove my family five times in a few months.” Carter Braxton, from Virginia, was a wealthy plantation owner. He loaned 10,000 pounds to support the Revolutionary War that was never repaid and his support of the shipping industry servicing the fledgling nation led to personal debt. He died a poor man at age 61.
Lyman Hall saw his Georgia estate burned to the ground. John Hart, a farmer from New Jersey, served in the New Jersey Assembly, including time as its speaker. His farm, livestock, grist mills and property were destroyed by Hessian mercenaries. His wife, having fallen ill during those difficult times, died on October 8, 1776, with her husband by her side. He then spent the winter hiding in the forest and sleeping in caves. Two years later, he invited General Washington’s army to make camp on his farm. Twelve thousand men camped on his fields during peak growing time. A few months later, John Hart died at age 66. There are numerous other examples, including many men and women whose names never became well-known, but who sacrificed for the cause of freedom.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, professor and author of “Night,” his memoir of surviving the Holocaust, died on July 2, 2016. His fight for freedom was different than that of the Founding Fathers but no less important. He was also not afraid to take a side. He was blunt and why wouldn’t he be? He survived the worst of humanity and he was unafraid to share what he learned. “Indifference,” he said, is “the epitome of evil”
The times we live in demand that we not stay silent. “We must take sides,” said Wiesel. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Another freedom fighter, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” and poignantly, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
If you want to speak up but are afraid, do it anyway. I do lots of things scared because it’s more important they get done and said than that I stay comfortable. We need your voices, too. Pick an issue that we face today and get to work. Start small if you need to but start. Write a letter to the editor. Contact your elected officials. Write an op-ed. Teach a class to your neighbors. Create an online or in-person forum. Join a group passionate about the same things you are. Practice public speaking. Remember Maggie Smith, another passionate activist who said “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” We need you.
Holly Richardson, a Salt Lake Tribune contributor, will be spending Independence Day with her family, acutely aware of families on the border who will not be.