A neighbor down the street invited us to a Fourth of July picnic a couple of years ago. As we happily munched burgers from the grill in the tranquil humidity of the summer, he asked me if I would read the “Declaration of Independence” to the group. He explained that it was a tradition in his family to have it read each year on this holiday. I launched into a somewhat pretentious dramatic reading but afterward reflected that I really enjoyed the reminder that the Fourth is not just about fireworks and cookouts, but also about the founding of our nation. A visit to Philadelphia with the Boy Scouts the following summer drove the point even further home as I stood in Independence Hall with my two sons, smelled the old wood furniture, and listened to the story…
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 Second Continental Congress had been convened in Philadelphia since May of 1775 functioning as the emerging nation’s government and military command. The battles of Lexington and Concord had already launched the Revolutionary War and representatives from each of the colonies gathered to try to make sense of the distributed efforts and plan the next steps to be taken. There was little initial agreement; until their “Olive Branch Petition”, attempting to compromise with Great Britain, was rejected by the Parliament. By early 1776, public sentiment had begun to turn from reconciliation toward independence.
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.
The Delegates to the Congress were not hot heads or radicals. They were respected political planners and architects, representing their colonies and hungering for justice in the new land. They carefully considered the implications of the bold move that declaring their independence from Great Britain would be and took measured steps moving forward. On June 7 the delegates of Virginia has presented Richard Henry Lee’s “Resolution of Independence” declaring, in part, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”
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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
There was immediate discussion and debate. Independence, by then, had begun to seem inevitable. Still, some delegates felt that more effort should be made to put the new government in order before declaring the break and all agreed that independence should be approved by unanimous vote of the people. The representatives scrambled to obtain guidance from their colonial governments on how to vote on the resolution – not a trivial task in the days before telephones and text messages when horses were still the primary form of transportation. They agreed to hold a vote three weeks later and appointed the “Committee of Five” to draft a formal proclamation and rationale.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia presented their draft declaration to Congress on June 28. It was promptly set aside while debate on the Lee Resolution resumed. On the afternoon of July 2, the resolution was approved by of a vote of twelve colonies in favor and one abstention: the New York delegation would not feel authorized to add its endorsement until a week later. The draft declaration was brought back for edit and debate and two days later, on the Fourth of July, the “Declaration of Independence”, including the text of Lee’s Resolution in its final paragraph, was approved and sent to print. It included the famous preamble, an extensive list of stated reasons justifying the secession, and a pledge to support the new government.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
The collective sigh of relief was brief. It was quickly replaced by that “what have we done?” feeling and an urgent effort to put treaties in place with other countries and to draft the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” which would define the operation of the national government until the passing of the United States Constitution in 1789.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, 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, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.
A brand new country, working to find its direction, set forth on a grand mission: the Pursuit of Happiness in the new world. Surely we’ll pursue happiness this holiday weekend with pool parties and parades and fireworks. I hope we all put aside a moment to remember the reasons behind our holiday and the passion that our forefathers brought to it in 1776. Happy Fourth of July!