Jeff Labrecque
July 04, 2011 AT 02:39 PM EDT

To celebrate our nation’s independence, it’s a tradition for local leaders or family members to read aloud the Declaration of Independence, beginning with the famous words, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The words still have weight, though it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the magnitude of their meaning when they’re being read at the family barbecue by your uncle who’s wearing a Kiss the Chef apron. Instead, I recommend re-watching the moment of independence from HBO’s 2008 miniseries, John Adams. As the representatives of the original colonies ponder separation from Great Britain, the political fire-breathing is over and the celebration is a long way’s off. As Adams (Paul Giamatti) tells Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) in an earlier scene, “We’re about to take a leap in the dark.”

What a masterful depiction of that crucial moment’s conflicting emotions. Each colony’s rep rises in the hall to vote on the course of revolution, and their faces convey the sense of, “Dear God, are we really going through with this?” Even when the Declaration is publicly announced, its primary fathers — Jefferson, Adams, and Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) — ponder in silence. “What did we just do?” you can almost hear them thinking.

The scene is an important reminder that the United States was not inevitable, and that the loyalties of many early Americans were still complicated. The document closes with, “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.” There was no turning back, and for that courage, we thank our Founding Fathers on our Independence Day.

By the way, all seven episodes of John Adams can be seen today on HBO.

Read more:

What Thomas Jefferson doesn’t want you to know…

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