Of “Worthies” and of “Fellow Citizens”
In his much-awaited, Monday morning, pre-July Fourth New York Times column, Bill Kristol writes a stirring and fitting tribute to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In “The Choice They Made,” he quotes a Thomas Jefferson letter in which Jefferson writes, referring to his fellow signers, “That host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.”
Kristol continues to extol the signers and other Revolutionary leaders, in my opinion–and I am sure unintentionally–a little bit at the expense of “their fellow citizens” who “ratified the choice. But they might have been slow to act if the worthies had not moved first.”
He continues, “The fate of equality, Jefferson makes clear, also depends on those who see further than, and act first on behalf of, their fellow citizens.” And Kristol adds, “The people are conservative. Liberty sometimes requires the bold leadership of a few individuals.”
But then, surprisingly, Kristol also expresses some doubt about the sense of honor of those in leadership positions, those who would represent us, those who would govern us: “And the pledge has to be supported by a sense of honor — even of sacred honor. The declaration’s assertion of equal rights, one may say, is supported by what is necessarily unequal, the sense of honor of those acting on the people’s behalf.”
Kristol’s doubts about those “fellow citizens” during that tumultuous period called the “American Revolution” are supported by others.
For example, in a 2002 July Fourth column in the New York Times, “The Argonauts of 1776,” David McCullough writes, “As daunting as almost anything was the lack of popular support for independence. Though war had broken out near Boston the year before, in the spring of 1775, the Americans who fought at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill had been defending their rights as Englishmen, not fighting for independence.”
True, had it not been for the “George Washington’s” and the “Thomas Jefferson’s,” and the “Benjamin Franklin’s” and other “worthies” our Independence may have had to wait for a few more years, but eventually those “fellow citizens” would have answered the call equally well.
And true, too, during the early years of the American Revolution, and even after the Declaration of Independence, there were the “Loyalists,” Tories,” or King’s men” who remained loyal to the British Crown, and even fought against our “Patriots.” After the war, some Loyalists relocated to Canada and elsewhere. But the vast majority remained in America and, eventually, all joined in that Great American Experiment.
This July Fourth, we should not forget the hundreds of thousands of “fellow citizens” who sacrificed so much , and especially those “fellow citizens” who fought and died to implement the ideals of “that score of worthies.”
While the exact total loss of life during the War of Independence will probably never be known, an estimated 25,000 American revolutionaries died while in active military service. Without them, it would not have been possible to “burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded [their "fellow citizens"] to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”