A declaration’s legacy

Jul. 03, 2014 @ 06:09 PM

“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 disolved; 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.”

With those words, the members of what we’ve come to know as the Continental Congress affirmed what was, as we would say today, the facts on the ground. We were dissolving our bonds with the country – then one of the world’s great powers – of which many had been loyal and dutiful citizens up until then.

The closing words, it should be noted, were no empty rhetoric. If the rebellion failed, not only did the signers of that declaration face almost certain economic ruin, they likely faced the punishment for treason – death. They would all need to hang together, Benjamin Frankly wryly noted, or they would hang separately.

Now, 238 years later, two observations might be in order on this Independence Day.

One, the rebellious spirit that infused that declaration has helped to define our national identity. No wonder we’ve had populist revolts, raucous and sometimes violent protests, marches, riots and even insurrections – right down to the tea party and occupy movements of today.

After all, the author of that declaration, Thomas Jefferson, wrote to fellow founder James Madison in 1789, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Second, we have yet to fully fulfill the assertion of that declaration: “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.” Only within the past few decades have we come even reasonably close to realizing that notion of equality; for nearly 200 years, millions of citizens were first enslaved, then discriminated against, often brutally,. For half that time, women could not vote. Still, it is fair to say we are closer to living up to that ideal than at any time in our history – and in many ways, perhaps more than at any time in human history.

While the journey is unfinished, today’s not a bad day to ponder how far we have come and resolve to press on.