Wednesday, July 3, 1996
Quiet thanks for freedom's foundation

The Cincinnati Enquirer

On the Fourth of July, I always read the Declaration of Independence.

I know that sounds corny. Even a tad super-patriotic. Not to mention boring.

But it's something I have to do.

I do it out of a love of American history and family pride. No Radel fought in the Revolutionary War. My family was still living in some hut in Germany. But, this declaration made it possible for the Radels to leave Europe for a life of freedom.

I'll be up early tomorrow because 220 years ago, the Declaration of Independence was adopted in hot, muggy Philadelphia. Debate lasted two days under the worst of conditions. Heat and war.

Finally, on July 4, 1776, the colonies voted to declare themselves free from the world's reigning superpower, Great Britain and its crazy king, George III.

Never mind the history. Or the years separating 1776 from 1996. The Declaration of Independence remains a good read. It's stirring. Inspiring.

Quick, too. Takes about four minutes. Time well spent on the Fourth.

I do my reading in the morning. Usually before the bottle rockets and cherry bombs spoil the day's calm.

It's just me, the birds singing freely - cardinals, mockingbirds, mourning doves, blue jays, robins, chickadees enjoying the heat - and Thomas Jefferson's eloquent words.

''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.''

I always go slow at this part. The words are extraordinary. Even better, they express an astounding idea. In 1996, we're still trying to live up to them.

Later in the day, I plan to see Jefferson's words come to life at a backyard barbecue. Somebody, my wife, my sister or my mom - but not me - will put on a ''Kiss the Cook'' apron.

Whoever wears the apron will be kidded unmercifully. But no matter how much hooting and hollering goes on, nobody in the government can just swoop down with guns blazing to silence the party and confiscate the apron. That's Jefferson's right to life.

While churning my mom's homemade vanilla ice cream, my brother-in-law might criticize the president and call him ''Slick Willie.'' He can say that out loud without any repercussions. That's liberty.

My 9-year-old niece can run around and act crazy the whole day. She can laugh, sing goofy songs with her strange uncle and scream high enough to hurt the dog's ears. She can do this all in the pursuit - and the eventual capture - of happiness.

At the barbecue, everybody will be free as the birds I hear singing. All because of what Thomas Jefferson wrote 220 years ago in Philadelphia.

His words are majestic. But they wouldn't carry any weight if his fellow members of the Continental Congress hadn't signed their names under this sentence:

''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.''

It took guts to put your name to something like that. England saw this declaration as an act of treason. The signatures at the bottom belonged to men who were literally laying their lives on the line.

Courage like that gives me goose bumps. And, I'm far removed from the action of 1776. I can't imagine what it must have been like 220 years ago. These men pledged everything they had to an abstract principle.

I can't imagine any group of politicians being so moved today. Members of Congress do not pledge their money, much less their lives, to a cause. And, they have precious little - if any -sacred honor to lose.

So, laugh if you must at my one-man tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. It's a free country.

Reading the words that made it so is my way of saying thanks. To the men who sweated out those hot days in Philadelphia. To the Radels with the courage to come to America. To the people I love at a backyard barbecue.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.