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Editorial: Declaration of Independence is more than a piece of paper

It sometimes seems in America these days that our political divisions and polarization are unprecedented, but history reminds us otherwise.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, concluding a long day of debate in sweltering heat in Philadelphia, voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence. All but one of the 13 colonies voted “yes,” with New York abstaining. A significant percentage of our citizenry was still loyal to the British crown, and New York’s provincial legislature had not yet given approval for its congressional delegation to vote in favor of breaking away.

Five days later, the legislature conceded, giving its OK to the vote for independence. The legislature wasn’t yet controlled by “three guys in a room,” but the lawmakers did pave the way for a possible future state motto: “Better late than never.”

According to historian Elizabeth Purdy, the bell in the Philadelphia State House rang out to announce the vote on independence, starting a celebration that would last all night. “Even those Philadelphians who wished to sleep would have found it difficult because cannons were discharged, drums rolled, people shouted and cheered, and all the church bells chimed in,” Purdy wrote. Loud booms, stifling heat and difficulty sleeping are all too familiar to many of us 242 years later.

Though all 13 colonies signed on to the Declaration, support was far from unanimous. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was one of our country’s Founding Fathers, a delegate to both Continental Congresses, but he thought the timing was wrong for the declaration, preferring negotiation with Britain rather than confrontation. Dickinson famously derided his fellow delegates for trying to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.”

Dickinson ended up on the wrong side of history, but his observation was correct that the declaration was just a piece of paper. Its words helped shape world events, but only thanks to the victory — against all odds — by the American patriots in their revolt against England and its military might.

The British Navy had just landed on Staten Island on July 2, posing an ominous threat to New York City as the congress was convening 80 miles away in Philadelphia. The British Navy was the most powerful in the world, and the English were supplemented by a mercenary force of Hessians. Add to that the fact that public opinion in the colonies was divided about whether to join the war effort or stick with the crown.

Gen. George Washington’s troops were routed in the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776. Hundreds of Colonial troops were captured and many died in New York City prisons. As the American Revolution dragged on, defeat of the Colonial side seemed inevitable. Some dispirited troops deserted to join the British, but a loyal core remained. And somehow, uniting in a common cause, the Colonial side prevailed.

The battle that’s considered the turning point took place up the road from Albany: the Battle of Saratoga, in 1777. In a series of skirmishes that lasted 33 days, Gen. Horatio Gates’ Continental Army — which included Benedict Arnold — prevailed over Gen. John Burgoyne’s redcoats. The war would last four more years, until the defeated British signed the Treaty of Paris in September 1783.

In hindsight, the unlikely triumph by the Colonial troops seems like the script to a Hollywood movie. The underdogs pulled off what in sports would be called a stunning upset.

Americans seem to be at their best when, inspired by a grand challenge, they unite in common cause. We hope it doesn’t take war to bring that feeling back in what can seem like a fractured nation.

On the Fourth of July, we don’t gather for barbecues or to watch fireworks as Republicans or Democrats. We do so as Americans, thanks to that skiff made of paper and the troops who backed up the words with actions.

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