The Declaration of Independence, first published on this day in 1776, unanimously approved by the Continental Congress 2 days prior, on July 2nd, 1776, did not create laws, rights, a government, or a United States of America.
It declared 13 Colonies’ unity in opposition to continued British rule, and their united determination to declare themselves Free and Independent States.
The representatives who met, debated, resolved to break political ties, and who drafted and edited the document giving their reasons declared themselves at the end of that document to be representatives of the united States of America (lowercase united). Representatives of 13 Free and Independent States, united in the declaration of their freedom and independence.
13 years of war
The import of this is to note that it was some 13 years before a Continental Congress again met 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.” to quote from the Declaration. That founding document is the US Constitution. Its Preamble enlarges upon ideas inherent in the Declaration laying out the purpose of Government envisioned by the framers.
Those 13 intervening years between the Declaration and the Constitution were ones of war and privation on the citizens, property, and countryside of those 13 Independent States. Declaring themselves independent would have secured nothing without the blood that was shed to support the right they claimed to have, indeed the duty they claimed to have, to do so. The Revolutionary war put lead and steel in place of ink and parchment to win the rights ink and parchment asserted.
That the representatives of those newly begotten States anchored themselves upon bedrock ideas predating any form of Government, party, or political system is noteworthy.
George F. Will, a notable political historian holding a doctorate in political philosophy, and well established as a Conservative thinker, says in his book The Conservative Sensibility, that America is the first country in world history founded upon an Idea. Geography did not establish it. Nor did ethnicity, nor genealogy, nor annexation by war. A political party or system did not create America. The inspirational coalescing power of an idea did.
That all men are created equal, with rights that Government does not confer upon them, but they consent to enact and institute Government to secure and protect those rights.
The word right or rights appears 5 times in the Declaration’s preamble. We may safely assert that the conception of rights, and the misuse or abuse of them by government, was preeminent in the representative’s minds.
“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,—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.”~Wikipedia, Annotated Declaration of Independence
The Declaration enumerates what it calls Unalienable rights having come to all men from their Creator. The document declares all men are created equal with an equal share of, and claim to, the endowment of these rights.
Declaring this to be so, did not, unfortunately, make it so for all people then living in the 13 Colonial States, approximately 50% of whom were slaves or indentured servants.
This is simple, verifiable, provable fact. To pretend it isn’t a fact is a disgrace to the name American and a slap in the face to history and history’s God.
Many drafters of the Declaration, and most notably Jefferson himself, the document’s principal author, were slave owners. Their livelihoods and fortunes derived from slave labor. In declaring all men to be created equal, Jefferson penned a truth that preexisted his writing. In enumerating 3 specific rights as among those which are endowed to equal men, Jefferson names these: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, clearly and indubitably denied to slaves.
to secure these rights
The revered document then states the most Revolutionary of ideas. That Government exists not to confer rights, but to secure rights that do not derive from government but from laws of human nature.
This is the most radical political statement in history.
Lest anyone use the word “radical” as an insult to hurl at a political opponent, remember these founders as the proud radicals they were. They would have worn the label as a badge of honor.
Once again, the Declaration rests upon an idea for its legitimacy before the court of public opinion, of history, and of history’s God.
Right of the People to alter or to abolish it
The Declaration asserts the absolute right of a people to overthrow any government that usurps individual rights or does not protect them; or that refuses to recognize that the only legitimate form of government for men who are created equal and endowed with equal rights must come from the consent of those equal men. This assertion, again based upon an idea, had to be tested on the battlefield, and proved with blood and treasure.
right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed
Here Jefferson admits the willingness of people to suffer long with injustices to which they grow accustomed. Neither the willingness to do so, nor the duration of the season during which that willingness to suffer lasts, negates the right of the people to right themselves when they see fit to do so.
It is their right, it is their duty to throw off such Government
Indeed, in this bold last use of the word right in the preamble, Jefferson and the adopters elevate radical Revolution to overthrow illegitimate government from a right to a duty. At the end of the document, they again invoke their solemn duty to publish the document that officially signaled the dissolution of the political bonds between the 13 Colonies and British rule.
I offer this very brief examination of the Declaration and some of its ideas and propositions for this reason: America, of all nations, was born of an idea. That idea is that all men are created equal. They have equal rights issuing from Nature and Nature’s God. Government does not create rights. Just government cannot take them away. Equal citizens with equal rights are free to their own lives, their own liberty, and to their own pursuit of happiness.
This idea, this America is the one I love. The possibility for these things to be actualized exists only in this place, so far as I’m aware. That these ideals did not exist equally for all men (and women) from the nation’s inception is beyond dispute to honest students of history.
That the seeds of possibility and potential for a full flowering of freedom, liberty and equality for all were sown in the founding document, the Declaration of Independence, is likewise beyond dispute.
That we as a nation, on our 245th birthday, still struggle to see these principles and ideas of equal rights and equal justice fully enacted for all our citizens, all the time, contradicts the very principles that first gave it birth.
So, I celebrate America, the idea, more than America, the present reality. The present reality is the crucible in which to forge the idea, but the Idea, set forth on this day 245 years ago, is the America I love and pledge allegiance to on this 4th of July 2021. I celebrate the idea of America in acknowledgement that she has yet to live fully to the standards the framers set so high. And I celebrate with absolute determination to do my part to see the idea become the reality.