By Jeff Peterson
Most Americans think of July 4th, 1776 as the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence or as the beginning of the long war with Great Britain. Less well remembered is the difficult struggle before 1776 as people in the colonies, including those here in Northern Virginia, expressed their grievances and searched for a political solution.
For the past 37 years on July 4th, the Falls Church Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) has hosted public readings of some of the interesting key documents that were the framework for the public debate about the future of the colonies and the idea of an independent country.
This year, the VPIS Independence Day Readings will be held at 2 p.m. on the lawn of the historic Falls Church. As in past years, a moderator will review the issues that faced the colonists in 1776 and the key ideas that formed the foundation for the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
You can find these documents on the VPIS website (vpis.org/history/annual-independence-day-readings). The event is open to all and takes about an hour.
Why take time from a holiday to get up close and personal with documents that are almost 250 years old?
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower drew on both military and political experience when he remarked “Together we must learn how to compose difference, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
Hearing the frustrations and hopes of people in the colonies, gives a clear sense of the “intellect and decent purpose” they brought to this critical political issue of their time. Though imperfect, it formed the basis for this experiment in democracy that has evolved and improved to become one of the world’s longest lasting continuous governments.
Looking back to the perspectives of people living here in Northern Virginia 250 years ago also reminds us that the political issues we face are not new.
Today, we debate issues of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. One of the key documents of this period is the Fairfax County Resolves of July 18, 1774, that became the basis for later declarations by the colony of Virginia.
Although the right to vote was narrowly conceived at that time, the second article of the Fairfax Resolves clearly states the basic premise of democratic government:
“Resolved that the most important and valuable Part of the British Constitution, upon which it’s very Existence depends, is the fundamental Principle of the People’s being governed by no Laws, to which they have not given their Consent, by Representatives freely chosen by themselves”.
Though the efforts of the colonists ultimately resulted in war, the authors of the Fairfax Resolves struggled to find a less violent approach of diplomacy and sanctions, determining that:
“…it is the Opinion of this Meeting, if american Grievances be not redressed before the first Day of November one thousand seven hundred and seventy five, that all Exports of Produce from the several Colonies to Great Britain shou’d cease; and to carry the said Resolution more effectually into Execution, that We will not plant or cultivate any Tobacco after the Crop now growing.”
Today, we struggle with issues of social justice, racial discrimination, and a legacy of slavery.
Americans of the revolutionary period and for many years after failed to live up to lofty goals including the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But, it is interesting to read in the Fairfax Resolves that even in a slaveholding society some people of that period could clearly see the immorality of slavery as they resolved:
“…We take this Opportunity of declaring our most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop for ever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade [of slavery].”
Of course, despite the ideals and purpose of the authors of the Fairfax Resolves, the dispute with Great Britain evolved into a long and bloody conflict and the issue of human bondage was ultimately subordinated to independence.
Our country would take another 80 years to put “an entire stop forever” to slavery.
The Constitution speaks of forming “a more perfect union.” As we confront the challenges and issues of our day, there is value in remembering the words of people from another time but from here in our same physical place.
We see their “decent purpose” as well as their contradictions and shortcomings. We are reminded that we all share a responsibility to continue the work to make the union more perfect.
The Independence Day Readings are July 4, at 2 p.m. on the lawn of The Falls Church Episcopal, 115 East Fairfax Street. Please bring a lawn chair.
Jeff Peterson is the President of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society