By Nathan Barton
As we here in the Fifty States celebrate the 242nd anniversary (official, at least) of the independence of the United States of America from the Kingdom of Great Britain, let us meditate on the courage of the Founding Fathers.
In that hot, sticky July of 1776 there in Philadelphia, there was little if any certainty of success in their secession from the empire. Indeed, despite the fact that the thirteen new nations were “hanging together,” they still might very likely hang separately. Especially the fifty-some men in that Congress who voted on this difficult resolution.
They were facing the world’s most powerful empire, which had previously beaten other empires (French, Dutch, etc.) in vicious wars, and (though they did not know it, of course) would go on to again defeat multiple empires in a new round of global wars. They were facing strong opposition at home, and would face more. (It is estimated that only a third of the population supported independence or even revolt, while a third remained loyal to the Crown.)
They knew that signing this document would in essence be signing their own death warrant. If any of them were captured by British forces, they could expect at best a lengthy imprisonment and show trial before being hung – and possibly even drawn and quartered – as traitors.
And they did not understand, that in too many ways, they were just going to trade one form of tyranny by government for another. They clung to a belief (as so many do still today) that free men CAN control government and keep it from becoming a monster. That government can be more than just a tool for those who lust to control others.
But they wrote and signed and acted anyway. They chose freedom and independence, however short-sighted and however much they fell short of the mark of true liberty.
In doing so, they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. We understand the first two today. They faced death, wounding, and imprisonment. They would bankrupt themselves funding the fight. But we don’t often understand the courage of the last, pledging their sacred honor.
We don’t really understand this concept today: honor is more than a good name or reputation, or being worthy of much respect, although those are all part of it. It is more than a distinguished position or high rank, but those can be part of it. (These men often did hold high rank and were honored in their communities.)
Webster’s second definition comes close: “That which rightfully attracts esteem, respect, or consideration; self-respect; dignity; courage; fidelity; especially, excellence of character; high moral worth; virtue; nobleness; specif., in men, integrity; uprightness; trustworthiness; in women, purity; chastity.”
THIS is what these men were willing to give up for the cause of liberty, of freedom, of independence. They valued freedom, liberty, that much. They were willing to give up the honor received from men, but also to risk the wrath of the Creator, for the sake of liberty. They were willing to give up even their own self-respect for a greater good. Like the man who sold all he had to be able to claim the pearl of great price, they were willing to risk everything – physical and spiritual.
To risk their lives required physical courage. Many of these men did demonstrate that courage in the next years.
To risk their fortunes, too, is somewhat physical courage. Many people fear poverty as much or more than physical harm and injury, if not death.
I place facing a loss of fortune (or of just plain earning a living) into a second category, together with “sacred honor.”
We call it moral courage. The courage to take action for moral reasons despite a risk of adverse consequences. Not just “non-physical,” either. It is greater than physical courage. It is the ability to take action even when there are doubts or fears about the long-term consequences. Not just to us, but to others. It requires making careful and deliberate thought before acting.
It can be “losing my job” or “losing the respect of my peers (or bosses or subordinates or family).” Moral courage overcomes fear that taking this action, however important and valuable, will result in some harm to those I love. It can be losing face, or being looked upon as wrong or even evil. These can be physical risks, long term.
These men, these signers, had both physical and moral courage, and demonstrated it in signing and then in accepting the consequences of their actions.
Today, too few people in the Fifty States have either physical or moral courage. We see it in everyday life, and in every crisis we face (real or manufactured).
But we are especially lacking, as a people, in moral courage. We see this in military personnel and government employees, in refusing to honor their oaths to the Constitution (to liberty) and in obeying orders that are illegal and wrong. We see this in teachers, we see this in students. We see this in marriages and raising children, and so much more, including business.