“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America… do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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…”
— Declaration of Independence
July Fourth — Independence Day — doesn’t get the observance respect it should. In fact, perhaps only Labor Day is lower on the holiday totem pole.
Oh, we ooh and ahh over fireworks, and make sure the flag is flying outside. But while we pause to remember those in our armed forces on Memorial Day, or give thanks on Thanksgiving, we often don’t stop to truly think about the importance of our independence — and the creation of this nation.
The Declaration of Independence — a formal statement listing the reasons why a break from Great Britain was necessary — was actually signed on July 2, 1776, at the Second Continental Congress. The 12 colonial delegations voted unanimously (New York abstained) in favor of the declaration on July 2, but revisions by Thomas Jefferson were adopted on July 4, which became the day we celebrate.
Today, that document and the declaration that a nation’s people have the right to choose their own government — “… Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” — is considered a landmark event in the evolution of democracy.
Remember, prior to our founding, most countries were governed by a ruling family. Many still are. How could our forefathers shun a political system that had been in place for 2,000 years?
Because they felt the actions of the ruling king amounted to tyranny: refusing the colonists any representation in the legislature; obstructing the creation of laws, or the administration of justice; intimidating people with large numbers of armed troops in our midst; and so on. And basically they said, “we’re not going to take it any more.”
Those early leaders voiced so clearly that overthrowing a government is not done lightly, but when “any Form of Government becomes destructive… it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”
This was treasonous talk, and those early leaders were indeed hunted by British troops as traitors.
How extraordinary, then, that those leaders persevered, even ending the Declaration with these words: “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.”
The 56 signers were ready to die for their words.
I recently read an interview with Larry P. Arnn, president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College. Arnn made an interesting observation — that while we tend to think of the declaration as an act of rebellion, it was also an act of obedience. Obedience to “a law that persists beyond the English law and beyond any law that the Founders themselves might make.”
“It is an act of obedience to the ‘Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,’ [as stated in the document] and to certain self-evident principles — above all the principle ‘that all men are created equal’ with ‘certain unalienable Rights’,” Arnn said.
That, then, is the social and moral fiber we weave into our nation, and why we fight for those rights and freedoms as soundly today as we did 236 years ago.
Recently, the Declaration of Independence was voted the most influential document in American history. Perhaps it is time we dig it out for a closer study, for to understand our roots may help get us back on track as a nation for tomorrow.
By Susan Crowell