Upholding the Declaration of Independence

Michael C. Quinn delivered the keynote address at the “Tapping of the Bell” ceremony, July 4, 2013, organized by the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution and its Color Guard.

President Burke, Superintendent MacLeod, members of the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution and its Color Guard, ladies and gentlemen, descendants of signers. I am so glad to be with you today. It is a high honor for a citizen to speak at Independence Hall on the Fourth of July.

Independence Hall is the wellspring for every American; for within its rooms the Declaration of Independence was issued on July 4, 1776. Everything that we are as Americans emanates from this place. The Declaration expresses our highest ideals: the equality of all people; the inalienable right to life and liberty; the right to determine our own future. Our Declaration gives voice to mankind’s quest for freedom and dignity; its principles unite us as a people, it defines our system of government; and it inspires us to reach higher.

The American Declaration was the first such announcement by a people determined to claim their own lives. Its words have traveled the world; in the 237 years since, over 100 declarations have been issued by oppressed people across the globe, all seeking freedom and self-determination. Its ideas still have meaning today.

At the time the Declaration was made in 1776, war was literally rolling ashore in America. On June 28th that year, the day Congress took its first look at the Declaration, the first wave of a British armada was sighted off New York City. The panicked sentry reported that “all London was afloat.” He had witnessed the beginning of an invasion that dwarfed anything in modern history: over 200 ships, 42,000 soldiers, and 10,000 sailors. It was an invasion force that was equal to 2% of the population of the 13 colonies. Such a force today would be over 6 million—coming ashore in New York City, just 100 miles away from where Congress was gathered in Independence Hall. Thus the final words of the Declaration, the pledge of “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” also had real meaning.

General Washington had it read to his outnumbered troops on Manhattan and the response was electric—in what has become an enduring act of defiance, soldiers and citizens tore down the statue of King George III. Outside of America, however, the Declaration of Independence had little meaning. British politicians heaped scorn on it. They disputed the grievances against the King, they ridiculed the concept of inalienable rights—after all, rights were established and protected by Parliament and the King. And they dismissed the idea of equality of mankind.

Just a block from here is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Revolution. The monument bears the inscription, “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.” It marks the burial ground of as many as one thousand Americans soldiers who died in the Revolution. It is thanks to the soldiers buried there and tens of thousands more, that we are celebrating the Declaration of Independence today. Our ideals were voiced by those gathered in this Hall, but they were made a reality by soldiers in the field—the untried militia who faced the British at Concord; the soldiers who braved the frozen Delaware to mount a surprise attack at Trenton; the troops who marched barefoot into Valley Forge—and starved and suffered—yet remained. And our ideals were secured by their commander, George Washington, whose leadership through eight long years led the army to victory. The outcome was so often in doubt—the Revolution could easily have failed.

This is the real history we celebrate on Independence Day: soaring ideals, some of the loftiest ever articulated—and it is equally a story of hardship, sacrifice and unquenchable courage. Different as they seem, each inspired the other. Together they gave the world something novel: a unified people inspired by the thought of freedom, and a nation built on ideas of equality and self-governance. These ideas are our greatest legacy: each generation must learn them, uphold them—and pass them to the next.

This is the story we will tell in the planned Museum of the American Revolution, an organization I am proud to lead. We will break ground next year and begin building the Museum. Thanks to our partners at the National Park Service, we were able to acquire a site just two blocks from where we are sitting, at Third and Chestnut Streets, just the other side of Carpenter’s Hall, where the First Continental Congress met. The Museum will feature a phenomenal collection of national treasures—authentic witnesses of this era in our history: the gun held by the captain of the militia at Concord, the canteen of a private soldier, and the tent in which General Washington lived and worked for the duration of the War.

Our exhibits will chronicle the War, and bring to life the events and people who achieved the Revolution, those who are our nation’s original “greatest generation.” You will gather under a Liberty Tree as did the first patriots; you will shoulder a 20-pound backpack just as did a 16 year-old boy who left home to march to war in 1775; you will stand on the line of battle and face the elite assault troops of the British Army; volunteer on a ship as did a young African-American, James Forten. And you will join the elders of the Oneida Nation who made the momentous decision to join the American cause. The Museum will have a gallery devoted to the ideas embodied in the Declaration. And it will tell the legacy of the Revolution—a legacy that now extends down the centuries and around the world.

The Museum of the American Revolution will be a national institution that preserves, honors, and perpetuates the memory of those who created our nation. They were not the first in history to win a Revolution, but they were the first to establish a nation that achieved the ideals of their Revolution. As the Museum honors them, it will take its place with the great landmarks in Philadelphia—this historic hall—and help shape how future generations understand our founding.

As we mark 237th anniversary of Independence Day here, many of us are commemorating another event that tested our nation--the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg just 125 miles away. When Lincoln came to Philadelphia on the way to his inauguration in 1861, he proclaimed his fervent dedication to the Declaration: “if ever I prove false” to its teachings, he said “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth...” That resolve kept our ideals and our country intact through another national civil war.

As we honor those who gave us the Declaration, let us remember it was the soldier as well as the lawmaker; let us remember those who have since upheld it; and let us renew our resolve to embrace it and uphold it. And let us also resolve to teach it to our children. Thank you.