On Thursday, we American citizens celebrated our nation’s hard-won independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, which today is officially known as the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, the legal separation of our 13 colonies from Great Britain officially occurred on July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence. The Declaration of Independence, the beautiful, powerful piece of writing mostly penned by Thomas Jefferson, was debated and approved on July 4.

Historians aren’t unanimous on whether or not the declaration was actually signed on July 4.

Signing the declaration was an act of real courage by the 56 men who did so. If captured, all would have been considered traitors to the British crown.

Ironically, Jefferson and John Adams, both signers of the declaration and former presidents, died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826.

These two men, both stubborn and proud, bitterly disagreed about the role and scope of government, and didn’t communicate with each other for years. This disagreement has been carried forward through the years.

Traditionally, Republicans—though around as a party only since the Lincoln presidency-- have harped on the need for smaller government and fewer regulations on public and private activities. Many argue that we don’t need a “nanny state,” where the government underwrites and directs citizens’ lives.

Traditional Democrats, on the other hand, believe government should be used to enhance the lives of the people and act as a brake on any gravitation toward unscrupulous or harmful behavior.

Late in life, Jefferson and Adams did resolve their hard feelings through a series of letters.

Adams was a federalist, believing in a strong central government, while Jefferson staunchly maintained that a state’s rights should hold sway. One saw the federal government as a means of unity and order, while the other, Jefferson, viewed with suspicion a powerful central government as a likely menace to freedom.

Balancing the need for a strong central government with the desire for as much freedom as possible remains a challenge. When you boil down the greed, hunger for power and mean-spiritedness that define the current climate in Congress, the fundamental core remains a dispute about the role of government.

Ben Franklin, at age 70, was the oldest signer of the declaration, while Edward Rutledge, a lawyer from Charleston, S.C., was the youngest, at only 26 years of age. That’s quite a responsibility at such a young age. He also served as governor of South Carolina from 1798 to 1800, dying before the end of his term.

Every man signing the declaration understood that he might be signing his own death warrant. Declaring independence from the British crown was an overt act of treason, one leading to insurrection. If the colonies hadn’t won the ensuing Revolutionary War, each signer could well have been executed.

The Flag of the United States, as it is officially denoted, was adopted by Congress on June 14, 1777, though an official announcement wasn’t made until Sept. 3, 1777. It seems that historical research has been unable to definitively establish that Betsy Ross actually made the first American flag, though it does make for a good story.

The symbolic nature of the flag was clearly defined by the Continental Congress, which specified, “White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; and Blue, Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice.”

The stars, set in white on a rectangular blue field or canton, represent the 50 states of the Union. The 13 horizontal stripes, alternating red and white, symbolize the 13 colonies originally comprising our country.

The colors red, white and blue, symbolizing colonial unity, were first used in a flag in New England in 1737, according to one website. This flag was blue with a white canton quartered by a red cross. In an upper quarter of the canton was a globe symbolizing the New World.

These high ideals were put to the test with the Declaration of Independence and subsequent war with Great Britain, setting our proud nation on the path of freedom it still roams today. Despite assaults on our democratic values and norms, our manner of government has stood the test of time. Messy as it can be, I believe the American social experiment has resulted in the best form of government ever devised.

These days, we Americans celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, parades, cookouts and family and community gatherings. We take this day to show respect for our independence, the freedom to live as we wish, to worship as we choose and to say whatever it is we want to say in whichever forum we individually deem proper.

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