Roger Garrison, a professor at Westbrook College (now part of the University of New England), lived at 20 Pine Lane. He wrote and delivered this speech on the Wildwood Fourth of July from 1970 until his death in 1984. The speech has been read every year since, as part of the closing ceremony.
Roger Garrison’s Speech** (as prepared and read by Wendy Joy in 2010)
(This is the sixteenth year I have given this. My only comfort – and possibly yours – is that it is a brief speech, and is in a long American tradition of oratory on public occasions. Perhaps these generations of public statements have given us Americans our healthy suspicion of politicians. (An American humorist once described a politician as a man with his mouth in your ear and his hand in your pocket.))
We Americans have a healthy suspicion of politicians. Yet, it was very much a political situation in June and early July of 1776, 234 years ago. The thirteen American colonies were already fighting the British. The Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia – about 75 delegates in all – was struggling to frame a resolution which would declare the colonies free of British rule. We tend to forget what a surprisingly YOUNG group they were, for the most part – many in their late twenties and early thirties. The five framers of the eventual Declaration of Independence were Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, barely over thirty; Thomas Jefferson was thirty-three and John Adams had just turned forty; (and) Ben Franklin, at seventy, was one of the oldest delegates in the Congress. These five, and others, who supported the resolution breaking our ties with the British, spent many a long hot day, and night, politicking delegates from New Jersey, South Carolina, New York, Maryland, and Delaware – all of whom resisted the resolution.
On July 1st, there was final discussion and a preliminary vote – only nine of the thirteen colonies voted for independence. However, in the next 24 hours, new instructions came from the reluctant colonies, and on July 2nd, 12 colonies voted for separation from Britain, and one, New York, abstained.
The weather was miserable – hot, muggy, with rain squalls and thundershowers. You can imagine small groups of sweating, earnest men, laboring over sheets of paper, scratching with their quill pens some extraordinary words – words that were to become a political reality for the first time in the history of the world. They said that each of the 13 colonies, “are, and of a right, ought to be, free and independent states.” That alone took tremendous courage. In all the 13 colonies, there were less than two million people (– only twice the number that now live in our state of Maine –) and these people were spread thin, mostly along the eastern seaboard from Freeport, Maine, to Oglethorpe, Georgia. Great Britain was ten times our size and had the greatest army and navy in the world.
Then, for two days, these young men – especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, worked on what they called “A Declaration of Independence.” As part of the preamble, they said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people (men) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . . . .” Familiar aren’t they, these words. We take them for granted most of the time. Yet, in fact, they were – and are – explosively revolutionary. WHAT? Ordinary people have a right to their own lives?? A right to have liberty, to own property and be free of domination?? A right to seek happiness in their own ways?? Up until now, and indeed for all of the roughly seven thousand years of human history, ordinary people didn’t have any rights: they had only what their rulers, their chieftains, their warlords, their emperors chose to grant them. Life – human life?? Cheap, expendable, not worth much. Human history spans about 600 generations; and of all those generations, only the last six or seven have had the opportunity to live freely, to have liberty, to seek the kinds of lives they wanted to live. Even the famous Greek Athenian democracy, two thousand years earlier, was a democracy of privilege, since it was based on slave labor.
The idea that all people (men) are created equal and that their basic rights come from God, was simply unheard of until barely 90 years before the Declaration of Independence, when a British philosopher, John Locke, first stated them. John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the others were familiar with Locke’s ideas. Now, for the first time, they were going to translate them from a philosopher’s book into political reality. This was an astonishing, truly revolutionary event. It was in the Declaration, and later written into our Constitution, that the basic strength of the United States would be a moral strength; that no one’s (man’s) pursuit of happiness would be at the expense of other human beings (his fellow men). Don’t let the word “moral” turn you off. Boiled down to their essence, “morals” are simply the collective decent common sense of a community.
So, on July 4th, the delegates signed the Declaration of Independence. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that evening, as bells were ringing, cannon were being fired in the harbor, and bonfires blazed in the streets: “This day ought to be remembered with parades and ceremonies, with shows, games, sports, bonfires, and fireworks, from one end of this continent to another, from this time forward . . . . .” So, what we’re doing here in Wildwood has been done 234 times before us.
For seven long years after the Declaration, we fought a savage and often hopeless war to establish our independence. It wasn’t until 13 years after the first Fourth of July that we finally had a Constitution in force. Now, in 2010, we are the oldest constitutional democracy in the world.
We must, for our children’s sake, and for ourselves (our own), once again reaffirm the moral and spiritual foundations of that revolution in human affairs that we have inherited. We can begin right where we are. We are lucky here in this peaceful corner of the United States. Here we are neighbors. We help each other when there is trouble. We manage our own affairs. We plant freedom here, where we are. There is no freedom without responsibility; no happiness without clear moral aims. Freedom and happiness have to be earned every day and every week and every year and every generation. We once again pledge to govern ourselves as persons, and by governing ourselves, see that our nation is governed, as best we can – now, and tomorrow, and the years after that.
And, that is why we have a Fourth of July.
**Text in parenthesis is Roger’s original text. Underlined text in italics is added text. Changes were made for ease of reading, for accuracy, and to allow the use of inclusive language.