The Declaration of Independence is the greatest political document ever composed in the history of mankind. Indeed, it is probably one of the greatest collection of words ever assembled on parchment.
I say this without hyperbole, exaggeration or puffery. It is, pure and simple, a fact.
Oh, there have been more detailed philosophical treatises on the topics of natural law and self-government, to be sure. However, never has a more succinct explanation of the rights of man been penned, with the possible exception, perhaps, of Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft before John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the Congress itself took the 18th century equivalent of a blue pencil to the document, erasing about 25 percent of what he wrote.
Jefferson, it should be noted, was not pleased with some of the 86 changes. Writers rarely are.
Still, even with the changes, or perhaps because of them, this single piece of parchment, measuring 29.88 inches by 24.44 inches, says more in its 1,337 words than all writings before or since. That is even more remarkable given that it contains not a single original idea and is, at its core, simply a legal document indicting King George III and, simultaneously, claiming the legal sovereignty of the United States.
The second sentence of the document is perhaps the greatest statement of human rights ever and is, arguably, the most recognized sentence in the English language:
“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.”
Indeed, that Lockean statement, in the context of the formation of a new nation, was perhaps the most important and explosive words to come out of the 18th century, a period when countries were ruled by dynastic monarchs and people were mere subjects, rather than citizens. While the British Parliament was elected, only about 3 percent of the population was able to vote at the time of the American Revolution and the crown still held the real power in the kingdom.
In fact, it is these very words that guide everything I have penned on these pages for the last 15-plus years.
One statement that was excised from the document, much to Jefferson’s chagrin, was one against slavery; ironic given the fact that Jefferson, as you should know, owned a great number of slaves himself.
Jefferson originally wrote:
King George “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
Perhaps, had Jefferson’s original wording survived, the bloody War Between the States, including the deadly battle of Gettysburg, which marked its sesquicentennial this week, would have never occurred.
Of course, such “what-ifs” are pointless beyond the entertainment value of speculation.
It is difficult to pin down the exact date of independence from Great Britain. Political relations began deteriorating in 1763.
One could argue that April 19, 1775, was the true date. It was then that the Revolutionary War began in Lexington and Concord, near Boston, with the “shot heard ‘round the world.”
After more than a year of fighting, the Continental Congress passed a preamble on May 15, 1776, which essentially rejected the crown’s authority to govern the colonies. Adams, author of the preamble, believed that was effectively the date of independence.
Then, on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence. Adams thought that would be the day Americans would forever celebrate as Independence Day. Two days later, on July 4, 1776 — the date we celebrate today — the congress merely approved the final wording of the document and, along with John Hancock’s five-inch signature, had the document printed and read to the people. The rest of the 56 signatures would be affixed in August with a few coming even later.
The date of independence is, however, mostly irrelevant. What matters is that this document itself is the true American Revolution. The eight-year Revolutionary War might have secured our Independence, but the real American Revolution, that of our transformation from British subjects to American citizens, our move from a nation with one sovereign to a nation where everyone is sovereign, continues to this day.
As you celebrate independence today, always remember it is to the ideals expressed by Jefferson that we owe our allegiance and not necessarily to the government that happens to hold the reins of power. Governments come and go, but the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence are forever.