Two hundred and thirty eight years ago in New York City George Washington was busy preparing for the coming Battle of Brooklyn, the disastrous results of which very nearly snuffed out the dreams of American Independence before the war ever properly got rolling.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia the Second Continental Congress had just passed the momentous resolution that the thirteen former North American colonies of England were now free and independent states, part of the newly formed United States of America. Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston had been selected by Congress to draft a document setting forth such resolution in writing.
Resolutions documenting votes of legislative bodies are drafted on a routine basis, and then as now the vote approving the resolution was seen as the momentous event, not the written document memorializing the vote. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced the Independence Resolution to Congress on June 7, 1776 that was eventually adopted on July 2, 1776. The two most prominent members of the drafting committee, Adams and Franklin, persuaded Jefferson to be the primary author largely because he was the second youngest on the Committee, next to Livingston, and Livingston was not an eloquent writer. The Declaration was at heart a dreary list of grievances against King George, listing one after another mean things the King did to his colonies justifying the break. Franklin and Adams, both older, far better known and more accomplished than Jefferson, did not relish the task of what was viewed as a bureaucratic, legalistic necessity, formally documenting the great event which had occurred by vote of Congress July 2. Only Jefferson’s soaring prose of surpassing eloquence in the Preamble lifted the document out of the obscurity it was likely headed for and transformed it into one of the world’s most famous documents. Had Adams or Franklin recognized at the time how important and famous the document would eventually become, they would surely have insisted on their own authorship. As it was, they thought they had more important things to attend to and left the drudge work of drafting a turgid list of grievances to the younger Jefferson, essentially the young intern in the matter.
Jefferson took the assignment and produced one of the most famous passages in all of history:
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4th, 1776
The Unanimous Declaration
of the Thirteen United States of America
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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 to 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....
While at the time these lofty ideals were only applicable in practice to a small minority of propertied white men, and the country still struggles to live up to them to this day, they nonetheless created an expectation and a standard, an image for this grand experiment in representative government to try to live up to. All these years later the words of the Declaration remain inspirational and aspirational not only to Americans but to countries around the world, many of which modeled their own later experiments in representative democracy, in part, on the original fledgling efforts of the first such government since ancient Athens.
While enjoying your fireworks and your barbecues, perhaps take just a moment to remember what has become one of the most famous and inspirational documents in human history, the Declaration of Independence, and reflect on the enormity of the risks taken by those colonists so long ago, who indeed literally pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to wage a war for independence against the greatest military power on earth. In so doing, they gave birth to a new nation, the likes of which the world had never seen before.
Happy Birthday America.