The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on the Fourth of July.
The Second Continental Congress declared independence from the British Crown two days earlier, and John Adams, one of the contributors to the document that made it official, thought that July 2 would be the day of celebration for years to come. He wrote as much to his wife in a letter.
Congress approved the Declaration’s final text on July 4, and so we celebrate today, yet the document wasn’t signed until August 2, 1776.
There are a few dates on which we could gather every year to set off fireworks, grill, and remember our history, but my bigger question is why do we celebrate this document in the first place?
It doesn’t note a famous battle. Or the first shot in the war. And certainly not the last. It’s not even the document that governs our lives.
The Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 marked the first major act of rebellion against Great Britain. And the first Revolutionary War battles were at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, more than a year before the Continental Congress developed the Declaration of Independence.
The war lasted eight long years, and ended on September 3, 1783. The Continental Congress adopted the ill-fated Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777, and all 13 colonies ratified them on March 1, 1781.
The U.S. Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation, was ratified on June 21, 1788 and went into effect on March 4, 1789.
We’ve got a ton of dates we could celebrate, and yet we choose the one that marks the approval of a document that did not signal the beginning or end of hostilities, and did not outline a form of government.
What’s more, dare I say it, the Declaration of Independence is not original (which Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, never claimed it to be).
What makes the Declaration so compelling is that it crystalizes a collision between the powers of men (meaning all people) and the power over men.
This fight had been brewing a long time. Until that July 2, or July 4, 241 years ago, tyrannical monarchs and benevolent leaders held ultimate power over restive populations, who were coming to understand the nature of humanity.
That birthright was a made up thing. And just as it was contrived, it could be deconstructed.
The same was true of most stations and privilege. Upon careful examination, it was clear that there were just a few things that created the foundation of humanity, all of which stem from our self-determination. The Congressmen outlined these philosophical points in the text of the Declaration.
Jefferson described our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of (not the finding of, but the searching for) happiness. He likely lifted this idea from English philosopher John Locke, who’d written on the pursuit of happiness in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding almost a century before.
But Jefferson and his co-Committee of Five members that contributed to the document – Adams, Ben Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston – went further.
They described how such rights were bestowed upon mankind by the Creator, could not be rightly abridged, and that the role of government was to protect those rights.
And that’s the money phrase.
We suddenly had a group of men willing to die for the right of self-determination, a right they believed was a natural part of existence. What’s more, they saw government not as a birthright or entity to be served, but as an institution that when properly constructed served every man by protecting his rights.
The pieces weren’t novel, but putting them together and signing the document with the blood of revolution was a quantum leap forward.
And not everyone agreed to take up the cause.
Only 45% of the colonists supported the revolution. Twenty percent were loyal to the crown, and the rest stayed out of it.
There’s an old adage about revolution. It’s always treason… unless the revolutionaries win.
I like to think that if I lived among the colonists I would have joined them in the fight. But I can’t know.
Would I leave my family back on the farm to fend for themselves while I went to war for a fledgling country and a new method of governance? Sounds questionable.
I’m thrilled they made that choice, as are many people on the planet, both here in the United States and abroad. Our ancestors proved that individual rights aren’t just a “thing.” They proved that everyone has dignity by virtue of existence, and government can be wrought to serve men.
Our history isn’t perfect. Those before us didn’t recognize rights extending to everyone for many years, and there’s always more we can do. But they started the ball rolling and gave us a fabulous base on which to stand.
And they did it with a document that noted not a single battle or major event in the conflict. Instead, it noted something bigger – the principles of the future.
How long would it have taken to achieve self-governance if it didn’t happen in the Colonies in the late 1700s? What group would have led the charge, opening the door for future generations?
Seeing past their faults, the Founding Fathers should be honored for their incredible contribution to our nation, and to all of mankind.
Happy Fourth of July!
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