56 American Heroes
Our nation’s founders risked it all for a chance at self-governance, and ended up building the finest, freest and longest-lasting democracy in history.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This passage from the Declaration of Independence is pure genius, the first sentence soaring in its eloquent expression of human rights, the second succinctly noting how such rights should be obtained: through “the consent of the governed.”
This Declaration, artfully crafted by Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson, was a spark that ignited the flame of freedom, hope and justice that still burns brightly a quarter of a millennium later. That right was hard-won by our nation’s founders, and has been hard-kept over the centuries by countless brave American men and women.
It’s appropriate, though, to remember how these rights we enjoy first took flight. It began when 56 leading citizens from the 13 original colonies signed and sent this bold Declaration of Independence to King George III of England, thereby risking their lives, their wealth, their honor and everything else, in the cause of liberty for themselves and their fellow colonists. Among this group were seven prominent Virginians — George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton and, of course, Mr. Jefferson.
None of the signers had to risk anything, much less all, for what was at best a fool’s errand, of demanding from the most powerful nation on earth — and then defeating it to secure — the opportunity for self-governance. For these 56 brave colonists, the easy, simple, safe route would have been … to do nothing.
And yet, they chose instead to risk all by signing this audacious challenge to the King, their pen strokes at the time marks of treason, but for the ages, emblems of courage. After all, how many of us today would risk everything for an untested principle, putting our name, our honor, and all we have on the line?
In the bittersweet road ballad “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin sang that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”; the Founding Fathers, however, had plenty to lose, yet still put their lives on the line. If it seems difficult for us today to understand such extraordinary mettle, it’s at least partly because we spend our days navigating through a steady shower of cyber news and social-media posts that drench us with stories confusing celebrity with courage, athletic skill with heroism, inconvenience with sacrifice.
Our nation’s founders built this republic of solid stuff and, like the soaring cathedrals of medieval Europe, constructed it to last through the ages.
As the passage from the Declaration of Independence published earlier in this column makes clear, governments are the instrument of the people, not the reverse. Governments are created as a way for us to secure our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Maintaining these rights is the responsibility of the people … of all of us.
Our nation’s founders created a political masterpiece, a near-perfect governmental system that’s precisely balanced to correct the injustices of imperfect people, ensuring rule by the majority while protecting the rights of those in the minority. Nothing before or since comes close to matching this beautiful blueprint of self-governance.
And with few exceptions, this system has provided us with almost 230 years’ worth of free elections and peaceful transfers of power, from George Washington forward, featuring political parties ranging from Democratic Republicans, to Democrats, to Republicans, to Whigs, to Independents from all points on the political spectrum.
In this month’s issue, you’ll find our annual Virginia State Legislative Guide. In it are photos and contact information on the 140 members of the General Assembly, plus details about the three branches of state government.
The General Assembly begins its deliberations on Jan. 10. We heartily encourage you to use this guide to stay in touch with legislators on the issues important to you and your family. By doing so, you’ll be paying homage in a small but significant way to the vision and the sacrifices of our nation’s remarkable founders.