By Chris Stirewalt
Political courage these days is generally defined as a politician doing something that might make it harder to get re-elected.
Real civic leadership has always been about convincing people to do what’s right and hard rather than what’s popular and easy. Courage is part of that. People are less likely to follow a leader who asks them to sacrifice and struggle when he or she will not.
But now, that sacrifice generally refers to a politician having to spend more of other peoples’ money on a primary election contest or, in rare cases, moving to a lucrative career in punditry or influence peddling sooner than expected.
The courage of defying voters to give lobbyists and press hounds what they want in exchange for a lobbying job or to join the press pack is not exactly shivering with the troops at Valley Forge. In fact it’s not really courage at all.
On Independence Day, Americans do not celebrate actual independence from Britain, which didn’t formally come until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on Sept. 3, 1783. Nor do we celebrate the start of the revolution that would make us free, which began in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 and lasted for eight years.
What we celebrate is the act of declaring our independence; the ratification and signing of a document that was meaningless without the might of arms to make it so. What we celebrate are the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, that most remarkable piece of political writing in history, and the courage of the politicians who engaged in what was seen by the duly established authorities as treason.
King George III claimed to derive his authority from God and had dominion over the official religion of the land. These rebels were said to defy even Heaven in what they said and wrote in Philadelphia that sweltering summer.
A cottage industry has sprung up around diminishing the sacrifices and nobility of the Founding Fathers. And to be sure, they were flawed men. For those who seek to find the flaws in the American experiment, it is perhaps irresistible to see its founders in a negative light. Perhaps it would just seem impossibly square to extoll their virtues. Cynicism sounds savvier, especially for those who struggle to see the arc of history.
But as you celebrate today, remember the story of Richard Stockton. He was born to a wealthy New Jersey family that helped found what we now know as Princeton University. Stockton had even been given the chance to travel to London to appear before George III to make a presentation to the king from the college’s trustees.
Stockton had struggled to find a way that the 13 colonies could be self-governing but still subject to the crown, the kind of compromise that would later come to Canada and other British possessions. He argued for such a deal and even counseled with leaders including Edmund Burke on crafting such a plan.
Back at home, Stockton was elected to the Second Continental Congress. By 1775, the burden of taxes and punitive laws imposed by the crown convinced him that George III had no intention of granting autonomy. When discussion turned to declaring independence, he was prepared to sign. With his pen strokes, he, a celebrated and elite British subject, became an outlaw and a rebel.
Before the year was out, Stockton would be captured by loyalists, have his estate looted and burned and be turned over to the British army in chains. His family fled and Stockton was thrown in a prison in New York where he was badly mistreated and left in failing health.
Stockton endured his captivity and was eventually released after George Washington protested the abuse. But Stockton’s health never recovered and he would die at home in 1781 without living to see the country he helped found victorious and independent.
So the next time somebody tells you that politicians today lack courage because they refuse to defy the will of their constituents to please lobbyists and pundits, remember Richard Stockton and what real political courage looked like. It wasn’t about K Street expense-account dinners and celebrity status. It was about sacrificing everything for the sake of an idea.
A very happy Independence Day to you and yours from the Fox News First team and the whole family here at the Fox News Washington Bureau.