Independence Day 2020
We celebrate July 4 as the day of the birth of our nation. Of course a nation doesn’t come into being in a single day, and the story of how July 4 became our national holiday is a bit complex. The Continental Congress was comprised of delegations from each of the colonies. Delegations ranged from two to seven representatives and each colony was given a single vote. The original draft of the Declaration of Independence was prepared by Thomas Jefferson, but there were delegates who weren’t willing to sign on to Jefferson’s document. The New York delegation, for example, was not authorized to vote for Independence from Britain. On July 1 the document was tabled. Congress then proceeded to edit the document as a committee of the whole, striking more than a quarter of the original document. Jefferson said that the document was mangled by the process. The vote took place on July 2 with a two-thirds majority, but not a unanimous declaration. Some colonies abstained from the vote. Nonetheless, John Adams wrote his wife Abbigail that he believed the July 2 would go down in history as the day of the celebration of the new nation:
“I am apt to believe that [Independence Day] will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
He got most of his prediction right, but the day attached to the declaration wasn’t the day that congress passed it, but rather the day it was publicly announced, July 4.
Whatever Jefferson thought of the edited document, it has stood the test of time as a powerful statement of the rights of people and the basis of legitimate government. A brief introduction asserts a philosophy of natural law that guarantees the right of people to form governments and to assert independence from ruling authorities. That is followed by a preamble that is a powerful statement of human equality and rights.
"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."
Of course the founders of the nation weren’t quite as expansive in their thinking of who possessed these rights as their document declares. Signers of the Declaration included slave owners who weren’t thinking in terms of the equal creation or the rights of those slaves. The colonists weren’t including the indigenous people of North America among those who they thought were created equal. The document, however, rose above the specifics of the moment. It has gone on to become a statement of an ideal - a goal towards which the nation can strive. The common equality of all has taken centuries to come to fruition and we are far short of the fulfillment of those ideals, but the document continues to guide our development as a nation and our work towards the granting of equal rights and human equity.
After the preamble, the Declaration has a long list of grievances against the King of England that justify the independence of the colonies from British royalty. It lists specific instances when the liberties and rights of the colonists have been abused by the King’s actions. This section is followed by a denunciation:
"Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."
Then the document is concluded with a stirring and powerful pledge:
“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 document was then signed and shortly afterward delivered to the King of England. It was also widely circulated among the colonies and it inspired the citizens of the colonies to muster the ability to assert their Independence through a war and the establishment of a new government.
Humans, being human, make mistakes, and the government that they founded is far from perfect. Our history has been marked by moments of glory and moments of failure. Less than a century after the founding of the nation a bloody Civil War nearly toppled the experiment in liberty and representative government. Although that War resulted in the emancipation of slaves and the fulfillment of some of the basic tenets of the Declaration, the racism and denial of rights that allowed for slavery to exist still persists in our nation. Not all citizens of our country are afforded their basic human rights. This killing of George Floyd has risen in the consciousness of our nation as more than a single act of depriving a person of the right to life, it has become a symbol of systematic racism that persists in our society and given rise to the call for reforms not only of the way that policing is done, but of how we organize our society.
So today, on the day we set aside to celebrate the founding of our nation and the declaration of our independence, it is appropriate to re-dedicate ourselves to the principles outlined in our founding document. May we be willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to the living out of the truth that that "all [people] 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."