On this day in 1776, 56 men attached their names to a document, the Declaration of Independence, declaring the separation of the 13 British colonies from the crown, an act they knew would get them hanged if their gambit proved a failure.
"A long train of abuses and usurpations" had left "them under absolute Despotism," the rebellious colonists wrote. When any people confronts such treatment "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government," they declared.
Having attempted to negotiate fair treatment, only to find their "British brethren … deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity," they declared they were no longer part of the British Empire.
"That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved …"
They then stayed and awaited the consequences of their actions. After several years of war, the conflict would conclude with the signing of peace treaties in 1783 and the birth of a nation.
What a stark contrast does the case of Edward J. Snowden pose.
Mr. Snowden is the former systems administrator, working for a contractor at the National Security Agency, who went public with information showing the vast monitoring the NSA conducts of cell phone and Internet communications. He has also revealed the extensive electronic monitoring by the United States of embassies and diplomatic missions in New York and Washington, most allies.
To disclose this information, Mr. Snowden ignored the oath he took to protect security secrets. He contended he had to act because the monitoring had gone too far and the American people deserved to know of their government's activities. And indeed Mr. Snowden's revelations has set off a needed discussion within this country about balancing security and the constitutional "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches."
Advocates for the monitoring program contend it searches only for activity trends that hint at terrorist intents, and only then are communications examined more closely upon issuance of a warrant. Yet these decisions are made in secret and raise serious concerns whether there are adequate checks to prevent abuse.
But unlike the men whose defiant act the nation commemorates today, Mr. Snowden appears unwilling to face the consequences of his actions. Instead of standing to face charges of espionage, he has fled seeking refuge first in China and later Russia. The irony of these choices could not be more evident. In making a stand for Internet freedom, for protecting the sanctity of online and cellular communications, Mr. Snowden chose two nations, particularly China, who have had no qualms trampling on Internet autonomy in the name of security and preservation of the state.
As Independence Day approached came reports of Mr. Snowden's attempts to find a friendly, Marxist-leaning South American nation to provide him asylum beyond the reach of the United States.
In the South of the 1960s, black Americans were dragged from lunch counters into prison cells to expose the evils of segregation and, in time, bring about change. In 1930 Mohandis K. Gandhi made his march to the sea to protest the British monopoly on salt, leading to his arrest and that of some 60,000 other Indians seeking independence.
Mr. Snowden leaked information and ran. His is no profile in courage.