July 4th is upon us again. This year it falls on a Thursday, and as usual we’ll celebrate with fireworks.
I have a guest from Poland staying with me who I will take to the celebrations at our town’s biggest park to see the display.
Poland is a country connected to ours through much history from the very beginnings of our country.
A Pole Kasimirz Pulaski helped found the U.S. Cavalry and died leading a charge at the Siege of Savannah in our Revolution. The U.S. Army cavalry ensign is, coincidentally or not, the red and white banner of Poland.
Pulaski came to America as an exile from Poland under sentence of death for leading an uprising against Russian domination of his country.
When word of his death reached Poland, his enemy King Stanislaw August remarked, “Pulaski died as he lived, a hero – but an enemy of kings.”
Another Pole Taddeusz Kosciusko brought his skills as a combat engineer to the cause of American independence, and designed the fortifications at West Point.
Kosciusko later led an uprising in 1794 against Russia and Prussia in a vain attempt to prevent the dismemberment of his country by Russia, Prussia and Austria. He failed, and Poland was wiped off the map of Europe for more than 130 years. Sentenced to death, he was saved from execution by personal appeals from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Other foreigners served in the army of George Washington, bringing much-needed military skills to an army of amateurs led by a commander whose only military experience had been 18 years earlier and who had never commanded more than 1,000 men.
Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben, a phony baron but a real soldier, taught military drill to the raw American recruits.
Von Steuben once remarked in exasperation, “It’s not enough to give an American an order, you have to tell him why!”
Johann von Robais, Baron de Kalb, first came to America in 1768 on a covert mission for France, to determine the level of discontent among colonists. He was impressed by the “spirit of independence” among the Americans he met, and in 1777 he returned with his friend the Marquis de Layette to fight for that independence.
De Kalb was mortally wounded at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780.
While de Kalb’s wounds were being tended by a British surgeon he said, “I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”
Lafayette returned to France after the Revolution, He became a tireless supporter of the cause of the liberation of Poland, and was very nearly sent to the guillotine when the French Revolution went seriously wrong.
What brought these men here, to face and sometimes meet death in what must have seemed an uncertain cause at best.
Perhaps it was this:
“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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
We forget today how these words terrified the ancient autocracies of the Old World. How they denied the right of any government not based on the protection of human right to exist, and asserted the right of the people “to alter or abolish it.”
And we forget how men of many nations saw our cause as their own.
One Englishman transplanted to America, Tom Paine, wrote in 1776, “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for all mankind.”
Happy Fourth of July.