On this day in 1776, July 4, the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted, marking the birth of a new and unique nation, which, as Abraham Lincoln later said, was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The immortal words of that Declaration adopted by the Continental Congress recognized that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“ While we have fallen short of our own ideal time and again, that is the bedrock principle on which America was founded and the essence of what it means to be American.
Let us go back to April 18, 1862, at a time when the Union Army had begun to assist slaves who fled to them from Confederate hands to achieve freedom.
On that April day in 1862, the Union army was approaching the rebel town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. John Washington, who had long been a slave in Fredericksburg, remembered that the white people all raced outside at the sound of “Yankee” cannons and then shut themselves into their houses. But it was different for the black residents of the town, particularly the slaves, who filled the streets, all in “the best of humors.” For the slaves knew that one could escape to the Union army and thus become “contraband” seeking freedom.
When he heard the “Yankee” cannons, he and his fellow slaves rushed to the housetops, where they saw the Union bayonets gleaming in the sun. “I could not begin to express my newborn hopes, for I felt like I was certain of my freedom now,” Washington recalled the deep emotions he experienced. To him, the U.S. Army uniforms and flag did not mean “oppression” as they did to white resident Helen Bernard; they meant liberty and justice for men who had experienced precious little of either.
Later, a Union soldier asked Washington, “Do you want to be free?” Like the Union soldiers who welcomed and assisted John Washington, America has that one question for men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds.
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