As a former U. S. History and Government teacher, the Chattanooga - Hamilton County Historian and a proud member of the Chief John Ross Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, July 4th may be my favorite national holiday. I must admit that I can hear Thomas Jefferson’s stirring words echoing in my soul every time the Declaration of Independence is mentioned in a speech or in print. Now only does the most famous statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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” increase the rate of my pulse, but other phrases reinforce the unique experiment drafted in that document.
When Jefferson chose to explain the reason for drafting the Declaration of Independence and listed English King George III’s violations of the inherent rights of English citizens, he is proclaiming for the colonists and interested international parties a profound principle of government established long before 1776 and accepted by the majority of the English colonists. While only a third of colonists will go on to openly support the revolution in the coming days, most believed strongly that each possessed basic rights guaranteed through English history via the Magna Carta , the Petition of Rights  and the English Bill of Rights . In fact, they could point to their own historical record and documents to assert a belief in self-government.
When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth three hundred and ninety-nine years ago, the leaders of the group realized that they were not stepping out onto the ground secured for them through the charter granted. Instead, their rough voyage had forced them north and into a very different harbor and landing site. In a stroke of brilliance, they drafted the Mayflower Compact, a set of rules outlining a self-governance plan. As a group, they understood that living in a settlement without rules could lead to chaos and conflict and that a system of government, even for a group of barely 100 individuals, was necessary. The government devised, based on majority rule, became the first to create a representative government based on common agreement of basic rules and signed by a majority of the adult males, including an indentured servant. The signers agreed that they would remain loyal subjects of the English crown, live in accordance with the Christian faith, and create laws and ordinances for the “good of the colony and abide by those laws.”
But the idea of self-governance had already been considered and endorsed in the Virginia colony. Four hundred years ago, on June 30, 1619, the House of Burgesses - - the first legislative assembly in the American colonies - - met in a church in Jamestown. With Virginia Colonial Governor George Yeardley and twenty-two burgesses, representing eleven settlements, present, the Burgesses were properly elected to conduct the business of the colony. King James I, a staunch believer in the divine right of monarchs to rule without interference from either his own Parliament or the upstart colonists, attempted to dissolve the House of Burgesses. The Virginians simply refused and continued to meet on a yearly basis to conduct necessary business. As additional colonies were settled, each demanded its own legislature, in defiance of the Crown.
So, on the Fourth of July, when you unfurl your flag, light your fireworks and consider this noble experiment in self-government and our Founding Fathers and Mothers’ willingness to suffer personal and financial losses to create a new nation, remember the Mayflower Compact and the Virginia House of Burgesses. As Jefferson, with assistance from John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York, presented the Declaration of Independence for the signatures of the now famous delegates to the Second Continental Congress, he was affirming a belief already more than 150 years old in the colonies.
Freedom! The Rule of Law! The Right to Self-Determination! We have every reason to celebrate. If you need me, I’ll be in Lookout Valley, flying my flags and singing ‘Yankee Doodle’. Happy Fourth of July.