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The real significance of July 4
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Forsyth County News
For most of us, July Fourth is a time of fun. Last weekend was no exception. It’s hot dogs and hamburgers, parades and fireworks. It’s family coming together for a wonderful break in the midst of a hot summer. But it’s easy to forget what it’s all about as children frolic in the water, and Dads toil behind the barbecue.

The most tangible reminder comes with the emotions of pride and patriotism that accompany the playing of the national anthem — but that only lasts a few minutes before it’s back to fun and games.

And then there is the visual — those older guys, walking around in faded military uniforms, who don’t look like much of a threat to anyone, but upon whose shoulders and sacrifices rests much of the life we have today and the ability to enjoy a holiday such as the Fourth.

We tend to forget the degree of risk-taking and sacrifice that made our nation what it is. In the 1770s the population of the 13 colonies was estimated to be about 2.5 million. Despite a great deal of unhappiness with British rule, the nation was divided between those who maintained loyalty to the crown and those who sought independence.

A group (who we now call “patriots”) was willing to take on both its fellow loyalist citizens and the greatest power in the world — a classic “David vs. Goliath” conflict. They staked everything in order to achieve their ideals when, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Forty-four hundred of them died, fighting for what they believed. Another 6,200 were wounded, but the hardships that were suffered during the years of fighting cannot really be measured. And then, in 1781, with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the unlikely outcome came to pass and a new nation was born.

The nation struggled in the early years. Conceptually, there were those who wanted a strong central government and others, like Jefferson (the principle author of the Declaration of Independence) who saw a federal government with a very limited role — a controversy that goes on today.

Countless sacrifices were made to get to the point last weekend where this nation could celebrate its 233rd birthday. We weren’t through with the British. The War of 1812 claimed 2,300 more lives and 4,500 wounded. The Indian and the Mexican wars added thousands more to the cost of building the nation. And then came the worst trial of all, where the nation divided in Civil War.

The toll was incredible, with more than half a million killed (about 50 percent on the battlefield) and almost as many wounded. The cost of continuing as a nation was horrendous. But from the ashes of conflict a base was built that would eventually lead to greatness.

The Spanish-American War lifted the tragic toll by 2,400 killed and 1,700 wounded. And then we moved into another era, where we were fighting not only for ourselves but for the rights of others as well. In World War I 117,000 made the supreme sacrifice, along with 204,000 wounded.
World War II took 405,000 American lives and left 670,000 wounded. The Korean War resulted in 54,000 deaths and 103,000 wounded.

Then Vietnam added another 90,000 deaths and 155,000 wounded. Since then the Gulf War, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the numbers.

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that, over the past 230 years, through the Gulf War, more than 43 million Americans have put themselves in harms way to defend the principles for which this nation stands. And almost 1.2 million have given their lives doing so.

It would seem that war characterizes much of the history of the “civilized” world. It is unfortunate that mankind has not found better ways to solve its differences. But the sacrifices that come from war are not the only ones that have been made to build this county. Tens of millions of immigrants set sail into the unknown, leaving the familiar to face a totally new and formidable environment, and in so doing, adding their skills, values and energies to this nation.

Pioneers forged westward, experiencing incredible ordeals. As the nation has grown, so has government.

All sorts of taxes have reared their unwelcome heads, although many support desirable public programs.

The independence of the individual action has been curtailed by structured laws, bureaucratic processes and communal peer pressures.

Among the many gems of wisdom in Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address (1801) there are two which I find particularly cogent.
First, “…the strongest government on earth… [is]…where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.”

In essence, Jefferson called for citizen action to uphold the principles for which the nation stands. This in turn, requires and educated and informed public (Jefferson devoted himself to education in his later years).

Second, he summarized his concept of “good” government as follows:  “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

For many reasons, some good, some not so good, we have come a long way from the laissez faire, minimalist approach to government.
This in turn places an even greater need on the public to be involved and informed.

So many people have made so many sacrifices to build and sustain this nation. The Fourth of July is really a tribute to them, to their efforts and their willingness to respond to the nation’s needs, whether voluntarily, involuntarily.

In many cases, just doing what was necessary to secure the benefits of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in ways that did not infringe on the rights of others.

I would suggest there is one critical but very small sacrifice that every one of us should make every day, a sacrifice that pales in comparison to those that others, before us, have made, and one totally consistent with Jefferson’s concept. It is simply to keep informed  — to read a good newspaper every day (not just the sports section and funnies), and to watch at least two TV newscasts of differing political persuasions.

Too many of us are too caught up in day-to-day activities to keep informed or to look at media that reflect differing points of view.
Jefferson’s concept of government long ago went the way of the dinosaur, but the concept of an involved and educated public is still the only one that will continue this nation on its path to greatness.

That should be one of the lessons that comes across as, annually, we celebrate the birth of our nation.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at