Editorial: Our history shows us what genuine courage looks like

On July 4, 1776, the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. Fifty-six men signed the document. What should speak to us today, as we wrestle with the obstructionist and dysfunctional state of our politics, is that every person who signed his name to that document put his life on the line. 

As they put pen to paper, they each knew they would be hanged if they were caught. Five of the 56 signers were later captured by the British, accused of treason and tortured. At least a dozen of the signers had their homes ransacked, their properties looted and their homes set ablaze.

There were horror stories for many of the other signers, as well. At least nine of the 56 died during the Revolution. Several lost sons.

Our nation remains a work in progress, and it is right to look at the past, remember what real courage looks like and apply those lessons to what’s happening around us now. Today in America, politicians can’t agree on anything and the country suffers as a result. Truth — what happened, what didn’t happen — has become a casualty. It’s mind-boggling that political division is so bad today that the two sides can’t even agree on what is in plain sight.

Because the ongoing political drama has become an embarrassing spectacle, let’s look back to other times in our history when brave people stuck their necks out — literally — and when courage was on full display. It was their courage that moved this country forward.

The Declaration of Independence is the foundational American document and represents everything the delegates at the Continental Congress thought of as they made plans to create an independent country. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote it. Among his five editors were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. If you haven’t seen it, go online and read the first draft, which the editors marked up, sending Jefferson back to his writing desk for subsequent drafts. 

Our country began with this act of political and moral courage — signatures on a document calling for American independence. Jefferson was so convinced of the rightness of the words on the paper that he wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Jump ahead to July 2, 1863, with Union troops wrapped around the high ground in the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee, whose government in Richmond was determined to end American democracy and replace it with an aristocracy, had crossed the Potomac River and invaded the North in hopes of bringing the war to an end.

On the second day of fighting, a small group of Union soldiers at Little Round Top on the far left of the Union line held off wave after wave of Confederates determined to get behind the Union lines. When the fighting was over the casualty rate for those Union men was over 80%.

Those brave men on Little Round Top saved the Union and the American experiment, which we are still working to perfect. They saw the grave danger facing the still very young Republic — and stood their ground. 

As President Lincoln said later that fall, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

There have been many other times when brave Americans defended our basic principles at great personal risk. The horrific events of Jan. 6 are the opposite of these moments in our history..

Politicians who don’t want to fully investigate that day, and find out how it came about that Americans tried to violently disrupt an election on behalf of the losing candidate, are marching to an entirely different drummer. 

If they think the attackers were not supporters of the former president — if they think it was antifa or was inspired by the FBI or some other conspiracy — they should back a commission to find out the truth and prove their point. 

Only two Republicans in the House voted to form a commission to investigate that day. 1st District Congressman Lee Zeldin, now running for governor, was not one of them.

We need to find the courage that has kept this country moving forward at critical times — and this is one of those times. We must not forget what it took to get us to this point. 

In a post-Jan. 6 America, Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, that we “can never forget what they did here,” take on a very different meaning.

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