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Saturday, July 4, 2009

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 to another...." So begins the most important document of Modern History and Modern Times. Adopted by a group of men selected by their neighbors and communities as representatives, the Declaration of Independence unified a people that were as diverse as any on earth at the time. For over a century men brought their families across a treacherous ocean passage to establish a new life in, to their Western European-centric lives, a new land. While predominately from England as time passed, early settlers in this new land came from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Germany, Holland and Spain.

As they established communities, towns and cities, the people began the process of America as a melting pot. Many cultures and backgrounds blending to form the character that became uniquely American. Many came to America because they were fleeing persecution and desired the opportunity to begin afresh to worship as they so desired, to break from generations of culture and family dictating what their futures were to be; others came for the adventure of creating their own future and fulfill the destiny they felt was theirs. The promise of a continent unclaimed by any recognized nation, unplowed lands and God's bounty spread beyond their dreams waiting for courageous, hearty and strong men to stake their future, and the future of their families.

This was the promise of America, this was the reality of America as the unique American character of independence and self-reliance hardened through the century. Strong individuals came together up and down the American colonies realizing that together they needed to stake one more claim, a claim of independence from their governors and their rule. Farmers, landowners, merchants, a few lawyers, came together in Philadelphia forming the Continental Congress. These men were not hot-heads or extremists, not to most of their fellow Americans. They were men who were learned, studied in the classical histories written by the Greeks and Romans, well read in economics and sciences. As was the culture of the time most were avid writers, letters abound between themselves, their families and their friends; the 18th Century version of blogging perhaps. They exchanged ideas and debated all sides of issues using the great philosophers and modern events to shape opinions and actions.

In July 1776 the American character and intellect converged in Philadelphia to vote on a resolution from a Virginian supported by a man from Massachusetts, henceforth the American Colonies would be the United States of America free from the rule of Great Britain and the crown of George III. As such the Continental Congress charged another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to write the declaration to be adopted by the Congress, to write the Declaration of Independence.

And so it came to pass that the Declaration of Independence was written, adopted and signed by men we now call Patriots and Founding Fathers. Men who put their lives in jeopardy for treason against the crown by voting for and signing this paper that announced to the world not just the desire for independence, but the certainty.

It is a masterfully written document, with what I consider one of the greatest sentences ever written

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

With these words Jefferson captured the American character and spirit, not just from 1776 but through history. Today over 230 years later these words hold as much truth for a man typing on a laptop in California as they did in 1776 to a man using quill and ink writing on parchment. Further these words transcend America and are as true in Baghdad as they are in Beijing as they are in Tegucigalpa; Man is created equal with the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Debate the words, debate the meaning, debate how they are ascribed to current times vis-a-vis mid-18th Century Judeo-Christian culture. These words endure as Truth through time, geography and culture.

What Jefferson put to paper and John Hancock brought to vote and fifty-six men signed was a document that cast the future of a nation and a beacon of hope for many more nations over the centuries. The Declaration of Independence not only gave notice to Americans and the British that America would pursue a course of self-governance, but it gave notice to Americans present and future that dissent was a codified part of our national culture and character.

After the Revolution when many of the same men who adopted the Declaration of Independence gathered to write our Constitution, many of the ideals resonating in Jefferson' document became Rights given to every American. These rights include the right to protest our own government, to publicly display our differences, to shout "Hell no!" Ours is a nation of debate, of political turmoil, of disagreement and argument--all of it done in peace and most often with respect.

I write a few times a week for public consumption on this website my opinions on the world in which I live, on the policies and statements by those who govern me with which I disagree, on the values and principles which I hold dear. I do this without fear of recrimination, without fear of violence, without fear of arrest or prosecution. I can do this because 233 years ago a group of men got together and declared my Creator has endowed upon me certain unalienable rights. And in the 233 years since that declaration succeeding generations of Americans have reinforced that basic principle, that basic right, that endowment.

Disagree with me, please. Tell me what you think, please. Exercise your rights, please. Fulfill what our Creator has endowed up you...please.

I encourage you to once again read the entire Declaration of Independence, as well take some time and read of the men who brought the document to life and think of what their hopes and fears were that summer so long ago.

Happy Independence Day!


Bob Schilling said...

It's not so much what they did -- though that was brave -- but what they started. In 1776, the American Colonies had three essential grievances. They were not allowed to trade with the French and Dutch colonies in Canada and the Caribbean. They were not allowed unlimited expansion to the West, and the outlook was for greater restriction. They could not follow the example of the British West Indies planters and stand for seats -- purchase them, actually -- in Parliament, which would have allowed them to better defend their interests. The "taxation without representation" argument was more about representation than taxes.

To obtain popular support (your average yeoman farmer wasn't inclined to stand in harm's way for advantages that he would most likely never see), the founders needed some overarching principles. "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;..." turned out to have just the right ring.

They certainly didn't mean that everyone has a right to life -- they hanged people on a regular basis back then, and those who could not fend for themselves largely starved. They didn't mean universal liberty, as several million slaves and a residual number of indentured servants could have attested. And nobody seems to really know what they meant by "the pursuit of happiness."

So it's not what they did, but what they started. That thought about All Men Are Created Equal -- the founders meant that they didn't want the King to own all the land in the first instance -- has grown a good deal, and is now enshrined in the 14th Amendment. As we have tried to live up to it, we've changed our society and our own personal beliefs in ways that the founders would have found breathtaking. It's made us the envy of the world, for here indeed we are all more equal than in almost any other country.

We're not done yet. People of color still aren't as "equal" as others. We don't hold women in a place of full equality. We've got work to do with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We've allowed too much wealth to be concentrated in too few hands.

But we've started -- in my view once again -- the process of expanding and deepening our sense that we are all endowed by our Creator with the same essential rights. For that I am grateful, and hopeful.

Happy Fourth of July.

Dennis C Smith said...

Bob: While I appreciate your comments they represent to me the irresistable urge whenever our Founding Fathers and their deeds are mentioned for some to qualify, marginalize, or otherwise show inadequacies in what they did and wrought. They were mere men, as you and I, yet courageous took the steps to create a nation and brilliantly did so in a way that endures today on the principles they presented. Sometimes can we not just accept that without the qualifiers? Is it perfect? No as can be seen by the many changes that have occured over more than 200 years--but that they conceptualized change and adaptations to their nation is pretty close to perfect. Let us celebrate our founding, our history and our beginning without guilt or having for one day to look at all that is wrong and how far we have to go. Please.