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By July 4, 2018 Read More →

Independence Day Address by L. Phillips Runyon III


By L. Phillips Runyon, III at the Monadnock Center’s 91st Annual Independence Day Ceremony, July 4, 2018

Good morning!

I really appreciate the opportunity to give this talk this morning. I’ve always been an amateur historian – my family would attest to that, as they’ve been dragged across many a battlefield over the years – and if I hadn’t passed the bar exam, I’d probably be teaching American history someplace now. And for an American historian, it just doesn’t get any better than the founding of our country and the courageous individuals responsible for that seemingly impossible undertaking.

Unfortunately, though, the founding generation has had so much myth and legend heaped onto it that knowing anything truthful about the individuals as real people has become a challenge. They’re either portrayed in powdered wigs and the formal dress of older gents – and I do mean men at that point in our history. Or they’re romanticized like Washington standing majestically in the bow of that rowboat as he crossed the Delaware on his way to rout the Hessians at Trenton. Take that latter event, for example. Washington didn’t cross the river amidst a glowing sunset, but in the middle of the night so he wouldn’t be seen. And it was snowing and blowing a gale as he and his troops floundered across the river, which is one of the reasons his attack was so unexpected – and successful.

Of course, the elder images of the founders are an easy sell these days. We’ve come to expect that momentous events like the founding of a country are the result of seasoned veterans with a lifetime of experience under their belts – because a number of our recent presidents have served well into their 60’s or 70’s, and many members of Congress have AARP and Medicare cards. What’s more, we’ve seen in the last 2 weeks that our Supreme Court is a veritable geriatric ward, with 3 justices in their 80’s, and only 2 of the 9 members under 60.

That really wasn’t the case among our Founders, though, when average life expectancies weren’t the 80’s of today, but about half that number. In other words, you really had to get cracking in those days if you were going to make your mark – or do something like create a new nation from scratch. So on July 4, 1776, let’s look at some hard facts instead of those romanticized portraits in oil.

John Hancock, who was president of that Second Continental Congress – and the owner of the tallest insurance building in Boston – was actually the only signer of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 (which was the day the wording was approved) – and he was all of 39. His signature was probably so large because he had so much empty space on the page to work with. The rest of the signers didn’t add their John Hancocks until August 2, so put that date on your calendar, too, and you can impress your friends and neighbors.

Thomas Jefferson, who had largely written the Declaration, was only 33 – and he hadn’t even met Sally Hemings yet. That’s younger than Dustin Pedroia, who plays 2d base for the Red Sox.

James Madison, the eventual author of the Constitution, was 25 that first July 4th, and his Virginia colleague with whom he’s often confused, James Monroe, was just 18 – and would probably have just finished up his junior year in high school these days.

Alexander Hamilton, who went on to create much of our federal financial system, was only 21 and would have been barely old enough to celebrate the Declaration with a tankard of mead or grog or some other unpleasant concoction of the day. And lest you think these were just the exceptions to the gray-haired founders of legend, here are a few more: Nathan Hale, who regretted that he “only had one life to lose for his country” was 21 – and wouldn’t get any older before being hung as a traitor in September.

John Marshall, our greatest Chief Justice, who established the Supreme Court’s authority over everything legal, was 20 that July 4th and not even a lawyer yet. The Marquis de Lafayette, without whose help we’d probably still be flying the Union Jack, and July 4th would just be the day after July 3rd, was 18 and would probably be a high school classmate of Monroe in most places today. And so as not to overlook women entirely – though most men did then – Betsy Ross, who’s said to have sewn the first American flag and is usually portrayed as a middle-aged spinster sitting in a rocking chair, was herself just 24.

The real old-timers were Thomas Paine, whose publication of “Common Sense” at 39 had ignited the drive to independence – Patrick Henry, who also at 39 had fanned those flames with “Give me liberty or give me death” – fortunately no one gave him death – and Paul Revere, who at the decrepit age of 40 had managed to ride a horse all the way to Lexington the prior April.

Then there was Washington himself, who at 44 was old enough to be the father of many of those other founders, not to mention the father of his infant nation. He didn’t say much during the debate about the Declaration, but that may just have been because his mouthful of false teeth was giving him trouble.

So what are the lessons we might take from this precocious group of founding youngsters? One might be that speaking up and speaking out about what we believe in knows no age limits.

In later periods, Susan B. Anthony would be in her mid-20’s when she made women’s suffrage her life-long mission. And Martin Luther King, Jr. would launch his campaign for civil rights at only 25 – and would die for it when he was still only 39.

Just now, look to the teenagers at Parkland high school to have that lesson confirmed about a current issue they’re taking a passionate stand about. Another lesson might be that while years of experience are valuable teachers, there’s a lot to be said for youthful energy and idealistic enthusiasm.

Whatever we do, though, let’s not assume from the legendary portraits we have of the founders that there’s a need to wait to get started making a difference. Most of those famous portraits were made once enough time had passed to add greater perspective to what the founders had actually accomplished – and once they could afford to have their portraits painted.

By all accounts, they knew very little about what they were embarked on when they forged ahead on that first July 4th. There was no road map – no Google for “how to declare independence” – no You Tube videos for “how to create your new country”. No small band of barely adults had ever stood up to the world’s most powerful nation. The British army and navy ruled the world. There was no American army or navy at all. No one had ever spoken to George III, then the most powerful person in the world, in such bold and audacious language. In fact, maybe it was the founders’ very youth – and lack of experience with the possibility of failure – that kept them from being too scared to barge ahead.

One thing’s certain, though – we owe them everything for having taken that leap of faith. Just look at the difference they’ve made for the lives of nearly everyone on the planet almost 250 years later. Not one thing about today’s world would be the same if those young – really young – Americans hadn’t taken that fearless stand. So maybe their lesson is simply this: When a critical but absolutely worthwhile task seems impossible – when the chance for success looks overwhelmingly bleak – when we don’t have any idea how to get from here to there – remember those young founders – and then in the words of a famous slogan of our generation, “Just Do It”. They certainly did, and when our moments come, we can, too!

Thank you, and Happy 4th of July!