Every year on the 4th of July, I watch the musical “1776.” It’s one of those movies that never really grows old for me, despite the fact that I know how it turns out. Ron Howard, the famous actor/director/producer, once commented that this is the hardest kind of movie to make—one where everyone already knows how it turns out. Where’s the dramatic tension?
The thing about “1776” is that it captures the tensions and difficulties that drove our founding fathers as they tried to figure out how to do something that had never been done before—namely, break away from the country that “owned” them. Their struggles are real, from deciding whether they should even attempt this new thing when there is no certainty that they could win, to how to cope with the hypocrisy of desiring freedom for their country (i.e., white, land-owning men) while continuing to enslave thousands (soon to be millions) of Black people and denying them (and women) any place at all in the new nation they hoped to build.
I marvel each time I see the film at how challenging this historical event was, even as I know I’m seeing a sanitized and limited version of it. There are ongoing jokes about how they are committing treason, but it is truly gallows humor—each person who signed the Declaration of Independence risked not only their wealth and honor, but their very lives and quite likely the lives of their families as well. Their actions come with consequences, both real and potential, that will change their lives and the lives of those around them forever.
But that is freedom. We tend to think of freedom as the right to do as we please, but if that is all we think it is, our thinking remains immature. Teenagers often think of the freedom having a car will bring, but they don’t often think of the costs—depreciation, oil changes, new tires, insurance, and the constant need to be aware of everyone around them as they drive. Freedom brings with it responsibility, the responsibility to use that freedom wisely and see that it does not infringe on the freedoms of others.
A mature attitude toward freedom, on the other hand, counts the cost. It recognizes that freedom comes at a price and that our freedom to do or not to do something affects the freedom of others as well. It is a precarious balance that we seek, one that shifts often and compels us to consider others along the way. It requires the ability to look at the situation from points of view beyond our own and sometimes to give up a little of our own freedom in order to ensure the freedom of all.
“Commitment,” says John Adams in the film. “There are only two creatures of value on this earth: those with a commitment and those who require the commitment of others.” May our commitment—our responsibility—be to freedom for all.