A toast to independence

Originally published in the July 4, 2005, Concord Monitor:

There are few formal occasions at the Great White House in the Sky, but American holidays remain treasured, especially the Fourth of July. Each year the members of the Dead Presidents Club assemble in Room 1776 to hear John Adams recite the Declaration of Independence. First, though, he tweaks his greatest friend and rival.

"Mr. Jefferson," Adams says, "we would be honored to have you read to us this year. After all, they are (ahem) mostly your words."

Jefferson reddens and begins to stand but, as always, declines. History has rewarded him with the credit for the Declaration, but time has done nothing to deepen his squeaky voice. And so Adams, the man who prevailed upon Jefferson to draft the Declaration and the only other president to have signed it, begins: "When in the course of human events . . ."

Adams pours his all into the speech, evoking the serious mood of the Continental Congress. He's also fighting off the urge to smile at his annual moment of glory. With Adams perched upon a stepstool and all the other presidents sitting down, not even George Washington can overshadow him.

Adams reaches the last line, and the others join in: "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

With that, it's time for a toast -- although there has never been agreement on what to say. "To liberty!" is heard in some corners, "Equality!" in others.

"To independence!" Washington adds, drawing all eyes to him as he stands. He thanks Adams for his performance, lamenting the lack of technology to share it with living Americans. "There are many," Washington says, "whom it would behoove to hear your passion. When you who signed the Declaration pledged your lives on paper, you embraced a risk as real as that faced daily by our army."

"Hear, hear," says Benjamin Harrison, whose namesake and great-grandfather was one of the Declaration's signers. "And several more cheers for the British generals who, as our current president might say, 'misoverestimated' our might. Had they but pressed the issue, the future of America could have been contained to the space of a few dozen nooses."

"And not just the British army was against us." It's James Madison speaking now. "What road map were we reading? Whose lead could we follow? To what example could we point and say, 'This is how you forge a new nation'?"

There was no such example, Ronald Reagan says, "but you knew what you wanted and you knew who the enemy was, and that gave you a chance."

"Yes, a chance," Jefferson says, "but nothing more. Because no sooner had we agreed on our purpose than we started to disagree on what to do about it."

"We're still disagreeing about that," says JFK.

"Which is fine," Madison says, "as long as we continue to agree in principle. At one point we did not, and only Mr. Lincoln's wisdom and Mr. Grant's force managed to make us whole again."

"So can it endure?" Adams asks.

"It can," says Washington, "but there will always have to be people who make it happen. The second greatest mistake Americans keep making is thinking that some group of 'Fathers' told off the king and that from there, history was on our side."

"And the first?"

"The first is assuming it will continue to be."