July 4, 1776, is the date that the Declaration of Independence received enough signatures of members of the Continental Congress for it to be ratified. It is not a declaration of war against Great Britain and it is not the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The American colonies had been at war for over a year by this time.
The war began in 1775 when British troops occupying the colonies attempted to seize stockpiles of arms from the colonial militia in Lexington and Concord. Men on both sides of the conflict died in rural Massachusetts in those deadly encounters. The war quickly escalated from there into a continental conflict. A Continental Congress was established to conduct the war effort. Early attempts by Congress to reach a compromise with the British crown were rebuffed. They had sought greater autonomy in exchange for accepting crown rule, but those olive branches were rejected with King George II clearly preferring to grind the colonies into submission. Since peace was impossible short of surrender the Continental Congress made the decision to turn a war for “no taxation without representation” into a war for independence.
The Congress needed a well-worded declaration for public consumption detailing why they were declaring independence from Great Britain after 169 years of largely peaceful British rule. Congress appointed a committee to draft this declaration. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston would write this document. Jefferson was tasked with producing the actual draft as he had shown enormous ability as a writer and political theorist in his 1774, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson wrote a draft and then edited his own draft. He then shared it with Franklin and Adams who made some minor edits, before it was presented to the committee of five. The committee then presented it to the full Continental Congress where it was ratified on July 4, 1776.
The document enunciates all the areas where the colonists felt they were aggrieved by their parent nation, the colonists’ efforts to have their grievances addressed and finally their justification for the ongoing war and why they sought independent nation status. All of that was to be expected in what essentially is a political divorce of peoples and government. Jefferson explained all the colonial grievances with the crown; however, the Declaration of Independence goes well beyond that narrow scope. Not only did it list what went wrong with the relationship between crown and subjects, it made a revolutionary assertion about the role of government and its relationship with the governed.
Western civilization is largely based on Rome and Roman history. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in their knowledge of Rome as well as the Ancient Greeks and the Bible. The Declaration of Independence is a short document, but it enunciates a worldview that shook the foundations of governments in its day to their core.
“All men are created equal” sounds innocuous enough, but that had not been the experience of most people born through the seventeenth century.
Status at birth was thought to be determined by God and the "higher status" persons were of “more noble” character or “noble blood” than persons of lower status at birth. The more closely related you were to the monarch generally the more power and prestige you wielded in this life. Governments were thought to be instituted by God with a divinely appointed King of royal blood whose subjects draw their rights from his protection similar to the imagined heavenly court and based loosely on the Davidic kingdom in the Old Testament (conveniently ignoring the fact that David was born a shepherd who fought a rebellion against his king, Saul).
The Declaration of Independence rejects that status quo and the whole concept of the divine right of kings.
“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 the child of a slave or of a small pioneer family in western Pennsylvania was created by God as equal to the child of a wealthy merchant, English lord, or the king himself is a shocking statement of fact and something that many people - especially the rich and powerful at the time - had categorically rejected from childhood.
The idea that a subject is given his rights by a benevolent sovereign is also rejected in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson argues in the Declaration of Independence that the purpose of government is not to serve the interests of the crown or even the glory of the fatherland, but that government exists to secure rights, rights which he claims comes from God, for the people.
“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.”
Jefferson is making the argument that governments are created by the people for the benefit of the people and are not instituted by gods or by persons whose noble blood gives them some sort of special status. Not only is this revolution justified and necessary, but anywhere in the world where the people’s rights are not being protected by their government, those people have a fundamental right to replace said government. This would go on to inspire many revolutions around the world and ultimately this view of man and government would lead to the end of slavery and colonialism, not just in North America but across the globe.
The Declaration of Independence, which draws heavily from the work of English philosopher John Locke, is not just declaring independence, it is a powerfully evocative statement about the nature of man and the role of governments and begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
The Declaration of Independence was read in front of courthouses and in church pulpits across the colonies as well as in the camps where the American army was mustered. It would go on to inspire Americans to persevere and win that Revolution, that at several points in the long bloody conflict appeared lost.
On this day we celebrate more than just the valor of warriors from a war that was won over two centuries ago. We celebrate the Declaration of Independence not as a list of long-forgotten grievances in a world of no electricity we can barely imagine, but we celebrate the ideals that inspired our Founders to build this country and the ideals which continue to inspire us to this day. That is what we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email brandon.moseley@1819News.com.
Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.