by Diane Rufino, July 4, 2016
Independence Day – What it really means….
What does Independence Day – the 4th of July – mean to you? Is it just a holiday to eat, drink, and light off fireworks? Do you display and wave the flag of the United States out of habit – because everyone else on the block does it? Do you cover your table with a plastic tablecloth of stars and stripes and decorate your yard with red, white, and blue because that’s what Target and Walmart remind you to do with its holiday displays and sales? Do you actually understand what the 4th of July signifies? Did you sleep through that lesson in American History Class? Was it even taught to you at all?
I just hope you aren’t one of those Americans who doesn’t think it matters.
When I was very young, I thought Independence Day marked the day when the 13 colonies defeated the British for our independence. Then in middle school, I learned that it marked the date the Declaration of Independence was signed. That was the extent of my understanding until I did my own reading. Soon I learned that not only was the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, but that it was an act of treason against the British Crown. It was an act of treason because while the colonies were fighting for their independence, the British were fighting to quash their rebellious nature for good. Rebellion against the Crown was high treason and it would not be tolerated.
But it wasn’t until I graduated law school that I was finally able to appreciate the real significance of the Declaration of Independence. Simply put, as its author Thomas Jefferson explained: “The Declaration of Independence… is the declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.” And in that magnificent document, Jefferson has laid out the natural order of our rights and the natural purpose and limits of government.
The document was almost forced on the colonies by history’s happenstance. It began with the colonies’ restlessness in the wake of an over-zealous King and Parliament which first sought to extract tax revenue from them (without representation) and then to oppress and subjugate them as a means of punishment. They were punished for daring to stand up for their rights as Englishmen, as Englishmen had done for over 500 years of their history. Indeed, the history of England has been a history of repeated attempts, first by the barons and then by all subjects, to assert basic human rights and to demand from the King a promise (a charter) that he will respect such. Some of the attempts were successful and some only temporary, but all of England’s notable charters were signed and limited the reach of the King and Parliament, even if only for a very short time.
Some of these charters and other significant documents include: The Charter of Liberties of King Henry I (1100), the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the Grand Remonstrance (1641), and the English Bill of Right of 1689. This history is critical for the foundation for our country because all total, these documents establish the notion that government must respect boundaries on the individual, acknowledging that they have certain essential rights and liberties. The rights and liberties asserted and re-asserted in these documents are the “rights of Englishmen” that the colonists most eagerly embraced and were most eager to protect.
Author Brion McClanahan explains the significance of England’s grand history in his article Rethinking the Declaration of Independence: “In 1100, King Henry I of England agreed to restrictions on his power through the Charter of Liberties. The English barons rejected absolute authority and sought to preserve traditional decentralized “government.” Just over one hundred years later, in 1215, King John was forced again by the English nobles to sign the Magna Charta. The “Great Charter,” as it is known in English, declared that the king was not above the law – making him essentially equal to the nobles – and it resisted the trend toward centralization in England. Though on the books, the Magna Charta was often ignored by more powerful English monarchs, but several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, most notably the writ of habeas corpus.” (See the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679).
In October 1214, King John returned to England in disgrace. His mission to reconquer his lost territory in northern France had failed and other military campaigns were unsuccessful as well. He taxed England’s barons heavily to finance these campaigns and they were not happy. Upon his return, he found that a group of angry barons from across the country had formed an association and were prepared renounce him as king. Over the next eight months, they made repeated demands to the King, requesting that he give them a guarantee that he would observe their rights. But the negotiations amounted to nothing. And so, on May 5 of that year, the barons gathered and agreed to declare war on King John. On May 17, 1215 they captured London, the largest town in England, without a fight. With London lost and ever more supporters flocking to the side of the barons, the King John realized he would have to address their concerns.
On June 8, he notified the barons of his willingness to negotiate. Over the next few days, the barons assembled in great numbers at Runnymede, a relatively obscure meadow just a few miles from Windsor castle, where King John was based. They arrived to repeat their demands and negotiate peace terms. On June 15, the barons presented their terms to the King and he signed the great document – The Great Charter (“Magna Carta”).
In Chapter 39 of Magna Carta, one of the document’s most important clauses, King John made the following promise: “No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
Here, it was agreed that the Crown and his administration would not arrest, outlaw, banish, or incarcerate any free man, deprive him of his rights, possessions or legal standing, or otherwise take official and forceful action against him, except in accordance with the lawful judgement of his equals or in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom. This was, in embryonic form, the principle of due process of law: The government shall not deprive any person subject to its jurisdiction of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Magna Carta provided that justice was to be guaranteed to every person in the Kingdom, that the right of justice would not be sold, delayed, or denied to any person. Thus, this critical, historic document provided that every freeman — i.e., every Englishmen who was not a serf — was to enjoy security and protection from illegal interference by the King (ie, government) in his person and property. [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), “The American System of Government….”] The terms listed in the Magna Carta would later be referred to as “the ancient rights and liberties of Englishmen” in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
King John, in giving his consent to Magna Carta, agreed that: (1) the Monarch was subject to the law of the Kingdom and (2) the law placed limits on royal authority. This reflected an early stage in the development of the central idea of English and American constitutionalism — the idea that the ruler was not above the law and therefore had to abide by the law and stay within the limits the law imposed on his power. [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.]
Under Magna Carta, the King still governed England, but he had to share with the barons one important sphere of political authority — the power of taxation. All royal requests for extraordinary taxes had to be submitted to the Common Council for its consideration and decision. When it came to the King’s raising revenue by means other than collecting the feudal fees and aids in amounts due him by customary right, he had to share with the barons, the largest and most powerful bloc in the Common Council, the authority to make binding decisions. The requirement, stipulated in Magna Carta, that the King submit proposals for extraordinary taxation to an assembly of his leading subjects — the barons and the Church officers of high rank — was one small but significant step on the long road to firmly establishing as a constitutional guarantee, truly binding on the Monarch and all other officers of the government, the age old principle of English government that no subject could be taxed without his consent, given by the subject directly in person or indirectly through elected representatives in a legislative assembly. [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.].
When Britain began taxing the colonies without allowing them representation in Parliament, particularly with the Stamp Tax, the colonists asserted this basic right from the Magna Carta in their protest slogan “No taxation without representation.” The phrase actually originated with Massachusetts attorney James Otis about 1761, who proclaimed: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”
After the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right of 1628, which was written by Parliament, was presented to King Charles I to re-assert the civil liberties of his subjects. The Petition contained four main points: (1) No taxes could be levied without Parliament’s consent; (2) No English subject could be imprisoned without cause–thus reinforcing the right of habeas corpus; (3) No quartering of soldiers in citizens’ homes; and (4) No martial law may be used in peacetime. Each of these four points enumerated specific civil rights that Englishmen felt Charles I had breached throughout his reign. Although he’d never been that popular as the monarch, his abuse of power against the people escalated to an intolerable level after Parliament refused to increase taxation and finance his unpopular foreign policies. The purpose of the Petition was to seek redress for the serious grievances Charles had committed.
When Charles showed no sign of repenting, Parliament drafted an extensive list of grievances which it presented to him on December 1, 1641. The grievances included 204 instances of gross abuses of the King’s power and usurpations of the rights of the people. Preceding this list of grievances were the following significant paragraphs:
For the preventing of those miserable effects which such malicious endeavours may produce, we have thought good to declare the root and the growth of these mischievous designs: the maturity and ripeness to which they have attained before the beginning of the Parliament: the effectual means which have been used for the extirpation of those dangerous evils, and the progress which hath therein been made by His Majesty’s goodness and the wisdom of the Parliament: the ways of obstruction and opposition by which that progress hath been interrupted: the courses to be taken for the removing those obstacles, and for the accomplishing of our most dutiful and faithful intentions and endeavours of restoring and establishing the ancient honour, greatness and security of this Crown and nation.
The root of all this mischief we find to be a malignant and pernicious design of subverting the fundamental laws and principles of government, upon which the religion and justice of this kingdom are firmly established.
The Grand Remonstrance would help precipitate a civil war in England and eventually lead Parliament to file official charges of high treason against Charles I. He would be tried, convicted, and executed (beheaded) in 1649. His son Charles II was exiled and his other son James II was able to escape to France dressed as a girl.
When England erupted in this civil war, the Parliament asserted its authority and suspended the reign of the Monarch, and by 1688 had become the driving force behind English law and policy. From 1649 to 1660, England became a republic. At first it was ruled by Parliament, but in 1653, Oliver Cromwell, commander of the army, became Lord Protector of England and served until he died (1658; his son took over briefly). Eventually the blood line of Charles I was restored in 1660 first with Charles II (who sat on the throne at the time of the plague and the great fire of London) and then in 1665, with James II. He was terribly unpopular, and in fact, was widely hated by the people. Not only did he force his Roman Catholic faith on the British people, but he willingly allowed the persecution of Protestants. He was forced to give up the crown in the Glorious Revolution (the “Bloodless Revolution”) of 1688.
When King James II was expelled from England in 1688, Parliament invited King William III of Orange and his wife Mary II (daughter of James II), of the Netherlands, to assume the throne. Parliament promised no resistance. The only requirement was that they sign the English Bill of Rights that Parliament had drawn up on behalf the people. It condemned James II for violating the rights of Englishmen, which the Parliament called the “laws and liberties of this kingdom,” and placed restrictions on the powers of the monarch. William and Mary “gladly accepted what was offered them” and signed the English Bill of Rights.
Those from England who settled the colonies, particularly Massachusetts, seeking freedom from religious persecution (Puritans and Pilgrims) and others, brought this history – and these rights – with them. After all, they were still Englishmen; they were living on a continent claimed by England and establishing settlements and communities pursuant to land patents issued by the King.
But the bond of affection would seem to be one-way only. While the colonists sought to live as loyal subjects to the Crown, enjoying the same the rights and liberties as the citizens of England, England sought to exploit the colonies for raw materials, trade, and taxes. For several years, things were good. No complaints. But just as the British colonies were growing and expanding, there were French colonies growing and expanding as well – in the frontier region west of Virginia up to Canada. They were mainly fur-trappers. Eventually, Britain felt its American colonies and interests were being threatened and the two empires went to war. It lasted seven years (the French-Indian War, aka, the Seven Years War, 1754–1763), and eventually, the French were expelled and England secured greater territory. Believing the war was primarily for the benefit of the safety and security of the colonies, Parliament enacted a series of taxes on the colonies to recoup the money it had spent. [Note that around 1750, the plantations were established and against the wishes of the colonies, Britain pushed the slave trade on them to ensure that raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, and rice were produced plentifully and productively and shipped to England]
Accordingly, Parliament enacted the following taxes: The Navigation Acts (1651, 1660, and 1663; duties on tobacco and molasses, to name a few), the Plantation Duty Act (1673; a duty on plantations), the Sugar Act (1764; a duty or tax on sugar), the Stamp Act (1765; a tax on all documents, including legal documents, calendars, cards, etc), and the Townshend Acts (1767; duties on items imported by the colonists, including glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea). The colonists were outraged. They weren’t outraged at the taxes themselves, but rather by the violation of their essential right to have representation in the legislative body that passes such tax measures. “No Taxation Without Representation!” They compared the current king, King George III, to Charles I for indiscriminately taxing the colonies without their consent. The Sons of Liberty organized at this time – originating in Massachusetts and New York and eventually having a presence in all thirteen colonies – and they were extremely effective at protesting these taxes and frustrating their enforcement.
Protests heightened with the passage of the Tea Act in 1673. The Tea Act allowed the British East India Company, which had a surplus of tea, to have a monopoly on import tea to the colonies. In passing this act, Parliament actually thought it was doing a favor to the colonies by providing tea at a reduced price (due to the surplus). In fact, the cost of the tea, together with the new tax (“a mere 3 pence”), would be lower than the cost of the tea provided by other sources. But Parliament didn’t get it. The colonists didn’t think government had the right to force a monopoly on them and interfere with the trade of colonial tea merchants. Colonial merchants couldn’t compete with the less-expensive tea that the East India Tea Company provided so abundantly. And so, the colonists once again took matters in their own hands. In Pennsylvania and New York, colonists did not allow British tea ships to enter the large city ports. They sent ships out into the harbors to block the tea ships. In Boston, they had a “party.” On that evening of December 16, 1773, approximately 100 “radicals,” members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, dressed up as Mohawk Indians, boarded three East India Company ships, broke open all 342 wooden chests of tea, and dumped them into the Boston Harbor. The value of the tea destroyed, in today’s market, would amount to about $1 million.
Well, that particular act of protest was the one that the broke the camel’s back. At first King George III didn’t seem too perturbed at the incident, but soon, the tide of British public opinion would grow against the colonists, whom they regarded as rebellious and childish, and that rising sentiment would force Parliament and King George to punish the citizens of Boston for their recalcitrance. Parliament would no longer tolerate disobedience; the colonies’ “rebellious spirit” would finally have to be addressed and they would have be made to obey British laws. Parliament would no longer be soft when it came to obeying British laws. It would show the colonies what happens to those who happen to have a “rebellious spirit” and are disobedient, and in doing so, reinforce upon them the need to obey its laws. What followed would be a series of laws called the “Coercive Acts” (also referred to as the “Intolerable Acts”).
On March 28, 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed four acts which together became known as the Coercive Acts. These individual acts included: (1) The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until damages from the Boston Tea Party were paid (no ship carrying colonial goods could enter or leave Boston Harbor until the Massachusetts Colony paid for all the tea that was destroyed); (2) The Massachusetts Government Act, which effectively revoked Massachusetts Charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1691), its colonial charter, prohibited democratic town meetings, and turned the royal governor’s council into an appointed body with wide-ranging powers (in other words, shifting government authority from Massachusetts colony to the royal governor); (3) The Administration of Justice Act, which made British officials immune to criminal prosecution in Massachusetts; and (4) The Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and quarter British troops on demand, including in their private homes as a last resort.
Indeed, the situation was intolerable. Parliament ordered the Royal Navy to blockade the Boston Harbor, preventing ships from entering and bringing in goods and supplies and blocking colonial merchant ships from leaving and selling their goods. By fiat, the basic structure of colonial government was altered. England was now governing the colony. To add insult to injury, King George appointed General Thomas Gage, who had served as the head of the British Army in North America, as the new Governor of Massachusetts, and he brought troops with him. On May 13, General Gage arrived in Boston with four regiments of troops. Aside from the fact that the colonists felt stripped them of their previously enjoyed rights, perhaps more unnerving was the presence of four thousand British soldiers in Boston. Under the Quartering Act, there would be guaranteed residence for the British Army and the citizens of Massachusetts would be required to quarter them, if necessary (otherwise they would have to remain on ships). The Quartering Act required the colonies to house British soldiers in barracks provided by the colonies. If the barracks were too small to house all the soldiers, then localities were to accommodate the soldiers in local inns, stables, ale houses, and houses of sellers of wine. Should there still be soldiers without accommodation after all such public houses were filled, the colonies were then required to take, hire and make fit for the reception of his Majesty’s forces, such and so many uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings as shall be necessary. Finally, British officials could abuse these acts and be free from prosecution in the colony.
In response, provincial militias started to gather munitions and store them in the countryside out of reach of the British regulars.
On May 26, Parliament dissolved Virginia’s colonial government – its Virginia House of Burgesses. And on September 1, General Gage seized the Massachusetts Colony’s arsenal at Charlestown, located just across the Charles River from Boston – near Bunker Hill.
On Benjamin Franklin’s advice, the colonies decided to meet in a common body to address Britain’s treatment of the colonies, in particular the blockade of Boston Harbor and the Intolerable Acts on the Province of Massachusetts. And so, on September 5, the First Continental Congress met with 56 delegates in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve out of the thirteen colonies sent delegates (Georgia did not send any). The Continental Congress, which would meet on two separate occasions, became the governing body of the “united” colonies during the time leading up to and then during the American Revolution.
On October 14, the First Continental Congress adopted a Declaration and Resolves against the blockade, the Coercive Acts, the Quartering of troops, and other objectionable British actions. These resolutions listed a series of grievances against Parliament (where have we seen that response before?) and appealed to the King to intercede on behalf of the colonies for proper respect for their rights as Englishmen. The Declaration and Resolves began as follows:
The good people of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North- Carolina and South-Carolina, justly alarmed at these arbitrary proceedings of parliament and administration, have severally elected, constituted, and appointed deputies to meet, and sit in general Congress, in the city of Philadelphia, in order to obtain such establishment, as that their religion, laws, and liberties, may not be subverted: Whereupon the deputies so appointed being now assembled, in a full and free representation of these colonies, taking into their most serious consideration, the best means of attaining the ends aforesaid, do, in the first place, as Englishmen, their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for asserting and vindicating their rights and liberties, DECLARE,
That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:
Resolved, N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.
Resolved, N.C.D. 2. That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.
Resolved, N.C.D. 3. That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them, as their local and other circumstances enable them to exercise and enjoy.
Resolved, 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved.
The Declaration and Resolves was presented to the King and then to Parliament on January 19, 1775. King George laughed and dismissed the document and the Parliament did not even address it. King George, to whom the Declaration was addressed, never even offered a formal response, for in his mind, he did not have to submit to the demands of the colonists, whom he regarded as insolent children. He famously said to the Prime Minister Lord North: “The die is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph.” He would not negotiate with them. His tacit response made it clear that he meant to maintain political unity between the colonies and the United Kingdom even at the expense of the happiness of the colonists.
Word of the Intolerable Acts and the subjugation of the colonists in Boston began to spread to other colonies and they began to react. Perhaps the most famous response came from Virginia, and Patrick Henry!
Because England had dissolved Virginia’s colonial government, its Virginia House of Burgesses, the state’s colonial leaders were forced to meet in secret. And so they did, on March 20, 1775, at a small church which is now called St. John’s Church, in Richmond, away from the Capitol in Williamsburg. Delegate Patrick Henry presented resolutions to raise a militia, and to put Virginia in a posture of defense. He believed that martial law would eventually come to Virginia. Henry’s opponents urged caution and patience, holding out hope that the King would eventually respond – and respond generously – to the Declarations and Resolves. On the evening of the 23rd, Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every county of Virginia and delivered a fiery speech in support of it. His final words “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” would be a rallying cry for the cause of independence and indeed, his entire speech is probably the most stirring, most passionate case in defense of liberty in our American history.
The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free² if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable²and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace²but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
Patrick Henry succeeded in convincing the body of delegates to pass his resolutions. Virginia would call up a militia.
On April 14, 1775, General Gage received orders from London to take decisive action against the rebel-rousers of Boston – the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. In the wee hours of the April 19, seven hundred British troops were dispatched to Lexington, where they would capture Adams and Hancock, and then to Concord, where they would seize a secret stockpile of colonial gunpowder (Gage had received intelligence about its location). But spies and friends of the Sons of Liberty leaked word of Gage’s plan. One lantern hanging from Boston’s North Church informed the countryside that the British were going to attack by land and two lanterns if they were going to attack by sea. A series of horseback riders – Paul Revere, William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott – galloped off to warn the countryside that British troops were coming.
Word spread from town to town, and militias prepared to confront the British and help their neighbors in Lexington and Concord. Colonial militias had originally been organized to defend settlers from civil unrest and attacks by French or Native Americans and selected members of the militia were called “minutemen” because they could be ready to fight in a minute’s time. Sure enough, when the advance guard of nearly 240 British soldiers arrived in Lexington during the early morning hours, they found about 70 minutemen waiting for them on Lexington Green. Both sides eyed each other not knowing what to expect or what to do. Suddenly, a bullet rang out. It would be known as “the shot heard round the world.” Seven American militiamen were killed in that skirmish. The British retreated to Concord, where they found an even larger, more organized group of militiamen. They then retreated back to Boston, and as they did so, new waves of Colonial militia intercepted them. Shooting from behind fences and trees, the militias inflicted over 125 casualties, including several officers. The American Revolution had begun. By happenstance…. not because of the blockade of Boston Harbor, not because of the Intolerable Acts, not because of the quartering of troops, not because of King George’s rejection of the pleas of the Colonies in the Declarations and Resolves, and not because of the other instances of mistreatment of the colonies. It was because the British had come for their ammunition.
Thus, the war for independence began over the colonists’ right to bear arms and store ammunition for their defense.
Not fully expecting the standoff in Massachusetts to explode into full-scale war, the thirteen colonies agreed to reconvene the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were some of the esteemed delegates.
By the time the Second Continental Congress met again, war was already underway, and so its purpose primarily became to conduct the war and manage the efforts. Already, colonial militias had seized arsenals, driven out royal officials, and besieged the British army in the city of Boston. On June 14, the Congress voted to create the Continental Army out of the militia units around Boston and quickly appointed Congressman George Washington of Virginia as the Commanding General of the Continental Army. On July 6, Congress approved a Declaration of Causes outlining the rationale and necessity for taking up arms in what had become the American Revolutionary War. The original draft was written by Thomas Jefferson but the final was written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Much of Jefferson’s language was retained in the final draft. The Declaration insisted that the colonists do not yet seek independence from the mother country but were forced to take up arms “in defense of the Freedom that is our Birthright and which we ever enjoyed until the late Violation of it”, and will “lay them down when Hostilities shall cease on the part of the Aggressors.’ [Interestingly, the very first sentence of the declaration includes a condemnation of the institution of slavery, which the Crown imposed on the colonies].
On July 8, 1775, the Second Continental Congress drafted what was called the Olive Branch Petition, which it sent to the British Crown as a final attempt at reconciliation. In it, the colonies expressed their collective desire to remain loyal to the British crown. King George, however, refused to receive it.
Rather, on October 27, the King spoke before both houses of the British Parliament to discuss the growing concern about the rebellion in America, which he viewed as a traitorous action against himself and Great Britain. He began his speech by reading a “Proclamation of Rebellion” and urged Parliament to move quickly to end the revolt and bring order to the colonies. He spoke of his belief that “many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty, and may be too wise not to see the fatal consequence of this usurpation, and wish to resist it, yet the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence, till a sufficient force shall appear to support them.” With these words, the king gave Parliament his consent to dispatch troops to use against his own subjects, a notion that his colonists believed impossible.
At this point, note that just as the British continued to implore the King to respect their rights and liberties with their various charters and petitions and remonstrances, the colonists followed their same path. The colonies would have preferred to remain associated with Great Britain through bonds of affection and respect, sharing the history and bounded government that had been established for over 500 years, but for over 15 years, the actions and reactions by King and Parliament amounted to “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” which were clearly designed to establish absolute rule over the colonies. We can see how England’s own history is providing the path – even the format and the words – for Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Paine, who moved to the colonies from England at the end of 1774, published his pamphlet “Common Sense” in January 1776. Common Sense advocated independence from Great Britain; Paine used moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for an independent government – one that suited their happiness; he appealed to their common sense. And it worked. The publication was wildly popular.
The two sides had once and for all reached a final political impasse and the bloody War for Independence would now be conducted in earnest. The skirmish had now become a war for independence.
On April 12, the state of North Carolina authorized her delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. This was the first official action by a colony calling for independence. The 83 delegates present in Halifax at the Fourth Provincial Congress unanimously adopted the Halifax Resolves. The Resolves read:
The Select Committee taking into Consideration the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America, and the further Measures to be taken for frustrating the same, and for the better defense of this province reported as follows, to wit,
It appears to your Committee that pursuant to the Plan concerted by the British Ministry for subjugating America, the King and Parliament of Great Britain have usurped a Power over the Persons and Properties of the People unlimited and uncontrolled; and disregarding their humble Petitions for Peace, Liberty and safety, have made divers Legislative Acts, denouncing War Famine and every Species of Calamity against the Continent in General…..
Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be empowered to concur with the delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency….
North Carolina’s state flag proudly displays this historic date.
Virginia followed suit. On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention passed a similar resolution. It read:
Resolved, unanimously, that the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best: Provided, That the power of forming Government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each Colony, be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.
At that same Convention, Virginia decided to instruct its delegate in the Second Continental Congress to introduce a formal resolution to declare the colonies independent from Great Britain. And so, on June 7, delegate Richard Henry Lee, introduced a resolution, termed the Lee Resolution or Resolution of Independence, which contained three parts: (1) to declare the united Colonies rightfully independent of the British Empire: (2) to establish a plan for establishing foreign relations with the Colonies; and (3) to establish a plan of a confederation to unite them officially.
The Lee Resolution simply read:
Resolved, 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 dissolved;
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances;
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed three concurrent committees in response to the Lee Resolution – one to draft a declaration of independence, a second to draw up a plan of treaties “for forming foreign alliances,” and a third to “prepare and digest the form of a confederation.” A Committee of Five was assembled to draft a document to explain the reasons for independence and it included John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. According to Adams, Jefferson proposed that he, Adams, do the writing of the document, but he declined. Rather, Adams said, it should be Jefferson. Jefferson was known for his writing skills. As Adams told him: “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”
Jefferson completed his draft of the declaration in just a few days. He argued in his opening two paragraphs that individuals have inalienable rights, that governments are instituted by consent of the people primarily to secure those rights, and that people have the right to overthrow their government when it abuses their fundamental natural rights over a long period of time. Then, in a direct attack on King George (in like fashion to the Grand Remonstrance of 1641 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689), Jefferson listed 27 grievances against King George III – 27 instances when the king violated the “the ancient rights and liberties” of the American colonists. Having thoroughly laid out his proof that the king was a “tyrant” who was “unfit to be the ruler of a people,” Jefferson continued on to condemn the British Parliament and the British people. “These unfeeling brethren,” he wrote, had reelected members of Parliament who had conspired with the king to destroy the rights of the colonists. Jefferson ended his draft by stating, “we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states….. ”
When Jefferson submitted his draft to the Congress on June 28, the delegates left the first two paragraphs essentially unchanged. Instead, they concentrated on Jefferson’s list of grievances against King George and the British people. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare the independence of the American colonies from English rule. And on the July 4 – the Fourth of July – it approved the final edited version of the Declaration of Independence.
News of the colonies’ independence rang out in all the colonies.
While the 4th of July is the date that we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 56 signers didn’t actually affix their signatures until August 2. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign his name and he did so in big letters. The story goes that after he signed his name, he gazed upon it and said: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles!”
In explaining the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote: “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”
For most of my life, I marveled at the Declaration. Its words were stirring, its declarations were brilliant, its indictment of King George was compelling, and its conclusion was heroic. I assumed the ideas, the words, and the flair were all the brainchild of Jefferson. But after reviewing the historical documents he had studied all his life, and taking into account the various resolutions and declarations written and adopted by the various colonies at the time, it’s quite clear that the Declaration is a composite of several documents. First of all, Jefferson essentially copied the form of the English Bill of Rights (and to some degree the Grand Remonstrance before it) as he sat down to compose his draft. Thus, Jefferson’s indictment of King George III was not a radical departure from accepted English practices. He was following English tradition, which in turn he adapted to American circumstances. I’ve seen signs and tee shirts calling our Founding Fathers “Our Founding Liberals,” but realizing that Jefferson, in writing the Declaration, followed established English tradition and re-asserted the “ancient rights and liberties” that for over 500 years have defined Englishmen, our Founders were actually quite conservative.
Winston Churchill commented on this tradition: “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”
In addition to historic English documents, Jefferson also borrowed language from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Resolves in drafting the Declaration. Mason asserted that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” Jefferson altered – shortened – his language in his original draft to state: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In fact, Jefferson adopted his famous phrase from John Locke’s 1689 publication Two Treatises on Civil Government – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone at the time understood that Jefferson equated “happiness” with property and safety. By “equal,” Jefferson meant that all citizens or freeholders are, as Mason wrote, born “equally free and independent” under the law. Note that the barons of England asserted their legal equality with the king in 1100 and 1215. So, Jefferson was not stating anything new. [ See Brion McClanahan, “Rethinking the Declaration of Independence”]
By its very name, the Declaration of Independence was a bold assertion of independence. Because it was asserted in defiance of the King, it was a highly treasonous document. Its signers were traitors. The outcome of the war would decide their fate. On October 19, 1781, British General Cornwallis surrendered his troops at Yorktown, Virginia and the British were defeated. After six years of fighting, the Colonies had won their independence. And once the Colonies had become independent, the Declaration essentially ceased to have any legal force. That which it sought to accomplish had been accomplished.
But that’s not where the Declaration of Independence’s story ends.
The Declaration may lack legal force but nonetheless, it remains the source of all legitimate political authority here in the United States and it memorializes the principles on which our country is founded. Abraham Lincoln once referred to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence as “the electric cord that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” And Calvin Coolidge remarked that “the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence predicated upon the glory of man and the corresponding duty to society that the rights of citizens ought to be protected with every power and resource of the state, and a government that does any less is false to the teachings of that great document — false to the name American.”
American Flag and Declaration of Independence
A review of the most famous paragraphs of the Declaration remind us of the essential principles that make up our political foundation and ground our precious liberties.
The first paragraph reads:
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.
The first paragraph characterizes the nature of the Declaration. When Jefferson writes that it is time for the colonies “to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another” he is saying that the colonies intend to secede from Great Britain. The Declaration, first and foremost, is a secessionist document. What follows in the other paragraphs are the reasons and explanations for the decision to “dissolve their political bonds”; that is, to secede.
The phrase “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” is a particularly significant one. It means that our rights are not a gift from the State, but arise from our nature. This marks a paradigm shift from the system in England. English law was still dictated by the Divine Right of Kings. Even though charters, petitions, and a Bill of Rights put limitations on the Crown and to some extent, on government in general, they still acknowledged that the King and the State had power over the individual. Without such charters, petitions, and Bill of Rights, the King and government could treat the individual as it wanted, generously or oppressively. Thomas Jefferson was making it clear that in the United States, rights are NOT a gift from the State, to be enjoyed at its benevolence, but rather that they arise from Nature and from God, separately and equally. God and Nature go hand in hand. God who created the heavens and the Earth also created the laws of nature. For those who believe God to be the great author of Nature, then rights come from Him, as our Creator. For those who lack faith, they can rest assure that our Declaration equally recognizes that all individuals possess fundamental rights because they are natural rights – part of our very humanity from birth. Even if you do not believe in a God Almighty, still you must respect the laws of nature. In this way, Jefferson was laying out the concept of Individual Sovereignty in a way that its people could universally understand and agree, irrespective of the particulars of their individual and very diverse faiths. Individual Sovereignty is the basis of our Rights in this country.
We may argue yet what are Nature’s Laws, but this much we can be certain: All people must observe and ultimately obey it, just as the laws of nature apply equally to all human beings. Since governments are merely fictional entities created by mankind and not by nature, rights supersede government. Saying that government is more important than the individual would be “unnatural.”
In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads:
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 of 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
In this paragraph, Jefferson’s mighty pen goes into greater detail about the nature of the aforementioned natural rights. He tells us that our rights, which are endowed by our Creator (or Nature), are unalienable and although are numerous, the most obvious ones are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” “Unalienable” (which is the same as “inalienable”) means that the individual can never been divested of these rights. They cannot be taken away or denied. They remain with the individual and government cannot take them away. “Life,” of course, is clear enough. “Liberty,” according to Jefferson, was the degree to which an individual can exercise his rights, his freedom. The rights which come under this umbrella would include the rights asserted in the Magna Carta, for example, or in the English Bill of Rights, or in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. (Remember the time period that the Declaration was written). “Pursuit of Happiness” includes property, but encompasses much more. “Pursuit of Happiness” means an individual should be able to freely exercise all his rights in order to live his life to its full potential. That “full potential” includes the ownership of property and the fruits of one’s labor, mind, and personality (all that which makes a person a unique “individual”). “Property” was too narrow a term for Jefferson. Now, just as the individual has the rights to Life, Liberty, and Property, he also has the equal right to protect them. This right of self-protection and self-preservation is also a natural right. Samuel Adams summed it best: “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.”
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” is another important principle. It is a critical and basic tenet of our form of government. First it states unequivocally that the primary role of government is “to secure these rights.” In other words, in the grand scheme of things, individual rights are supreme over the authority of the State (ie, government). The primary role of government, and the motivating force behind the formation of government, is to secure the inalienable rights, endowed by our Creator (Nature), of each individual. This means that government is to be ideally limited to the role of a policeman, a judge, a prison warden, and a military force. Furthermore, this provision explains that government has no powers of its own, but only “derives” its powers from individuals consenting to transfer power to it. This is where the doctrine of Individual Sovereignty comes from. In a state of Nature, man has full sovereign power to govern himself – to provide for himself, to protect himself, to think and act as he wants. He is responsible for himself and his conduct. What is especially critical about this principle of “deriving powers from the consent of the governed” is that power delegated by the people is always “temporary” in nature. The people can always re-assume their sovereign power – their right to govern themselves.
Having told us the proper function of government, Jefferson then tells us what gives cause to changing it: “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, 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.”
The first thing to note is that governments are always “temporary.” Government exists at the whim of the people and have no right in and of itself to its own existence or longevity. Government is a “creation.” It is not a natural institution. Because is arises by the “consent of the governed,” it is a product of compact. Compacts have elements of contract law and agency law. The second thing to note is the Declaration acknowledges that individuals have the RIGHT to establish their government to effect THEIR happiness and their safety. When government ceases to serve those purposes, then individuals are well within their natural right to abolish that government and establish another.
The Declaration goes one step further and challenges individuals to be vigilante of their rights and critical of their government. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
How will a people know for sure when it is time to “abolish” their government? Or how will they know when it is time to dissolve political bonds that tie them to another; that is, how will they know when it is time to secede from another political body? The Declaration, in that last sentence, tells us: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
And that line, as Jefferson will explain in the section that follows, sums up the position of the Colonies. In that section, Jefferson sets out to make the case that the conduct of the King is a history of abuses and usurpations. He lists 27 grievances against King George III – 27 instances where he violated the rights of the colonists – which he, Jefferson (and the Second Continental Congress, as evidenced by its adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) believe evidences a design to reduce them under an absolute Despotism (tyranny). In the last paragraph of the Declaration, Jefferson will finally make the case that because of this evil design, the Colonies have a right and a duty to dissolve their political bonds with the King.
The last paragraph reads:
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 dissolved; 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.
The Declaration of Independence ends with these powerful words: “For the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.” We can never forget that the Declaration was a treasonous document, which, if the British had won the war, would have sealed the fate of each of its signers and earned them a date with a hangman’s noose. But they believed in their cause. They believed in the words they wrote in that document and they believed in their case against the King. And they were willing to risk it all.
Signer Benjamin Rush (of Pennsylvania) wrote: “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”
After signing his name in a large flowing style, it is rumored that John Hancock’s full response was this: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles. And he can double the reward on my head!” Benjamin Franklin, insisting that every single delegate sign the Declaration of Independence, said: “We must all hang together or surely we shall all hang separately.” The large, burly Virginian, Benjamin Harrison, turned to the pipsqueak from Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, and joked: “I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
One day after the Declaration was adopted by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, John Adams wrote home to his wife Abagail: “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction.”
In a speech he gave on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (5 July 1926), Calvin Coolidge reflected:
“Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed. If no one is to be accounted as born into a superior station, if there is to be no ruling class, and if all possess rights which can neither be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed. While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination… In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause… If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.”
By a stroke of remarkable coincidence, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day – the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. Jefferson preceded Adams in death by five hours.
When I think about Independence Day, I think of our magnificent story. I think about the uncompromising determination of people to live free and the eternal vigilance it took to finally secure lasting boundaries on government. I think about the ways the British and then the colonists expressed their discontent with the King and the many ways they sought to exert their rights, and how the many efforts culminated in their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence. I think about how our Founding Fathers brilliantly turned government on its head – transforming a system of government based on the Divine Right of Kings to a system predicated on Individual Sovereignty. I think of a continuum of a story that began in 1215 with a stand-off on the meadow at Runnymede in order to secure a promise from an arrogant and ambitious king that ended with a document signed by 56 delegates assembled together from 13 separate states on July 4. The continent may have changed, but man’s yearning to be free did not.
Now, as we all know, a country is a physical location inhabited by a body politic. Principles are embraced by people and not by geography, and so liberty and independence is a spirit that must live in all of us. If it doesn’t, then we suffer oppression together. As Machiavelli once said: “It is just as difficult and dangerous to try to free a people that wants to remain servile as it is to enslave a people that wants to remain free.” The Declaration embraces our revolutionary spirit, and God help us when our country has the spirit of an aging grandmother. The key is to always keep that revolutionary spirit. And maybe that’s what Independence Day is all about…. to reflect on our history and to rekindle that spirit every year.
In conclusion, I would like to implore that on this Independence Day and on every Independence Day, that we remember the advice that was once given to us by James Madison: “The people of the U.S. owe their Independence and their liberty to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom, in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings.”
Brion McClanahan, “Rethinking the Declaration of Independence,” Abbeville Institute, July 4, 2016. Referenced at: http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/rethinking-the-declaration-of-independence/
Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), “The American System of Government: The American Constitutional System – English Origins (1066-1558),” Cyberland University of North Carolina.
Referenced at: http://www.proconservative.net/CUNAPolSci201PartFourB.shtml [In-depth study of the Magna Carta]
The Petition of Right of 1628 – http://study.com/academy/lesson/petition-of-right-of-1628-definition-summary.html
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/england.asp
The Grand Remonstrance – http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur043.htm
The Declaration and Resolves – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/resolves.asp
Patrick Henry’s Speech of March 23, 1775 – https://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm
Halifax Resolves – http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-revolution/4328
Preamble and Resolution of the Virginia Convention of May 15, 1776 – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/const02.asp
The Lee Resolutions – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/lee.asp
“Boiling It Down, This Is What You’ve Said,” Mark America, October 15, 2011. Referenced at: http://markamerica.com/2011/10/15/boiling-it-down-this-is-what-youve-said/
Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace”, address at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri (March 5, 1946); in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963 (1974), vol. 7, p. 7288.
Calvin Coolidge, speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 5, 1926).