As Presidents’ Day comes our way, it is a good time reflect on the creation of a nation where the chief executive is not the locus of government power, but power is derived from the “consent of the governed.” (By the way, “Presidents’ Day” is a misnomer. The Federal government sets the third Monday of February as George Washington’s Birthday.) American presidents come and go. However, there are basic assummptions about the Declaration of Independence that every American should know, and every American should use as the touchstone for proper government — especially American presidents.
The Declaration of Independence was a necessary and vital statement made at a time when the success of the American Revolution was doubtful and government by ordinary people was considered a novel experiment (at best).
When the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration, it was a powerful reminder to a “candid world” that in all of European history no colony had ever successfully separated from a mother country to form an independent nation. Furthermore, the Declaration made it clear that the United States would be founded on Enlightenment principles such as good government is based on a respect of natural rights and the people have a right to alter or abolish a government that does not respect those rights. Equally important, the Declaration is based on an American concept of liberty that became the standard for nation, even though its principles were considered experimental at best by the European political class of the times. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” compelled the Second Continental Congress to explain what they were doing. George III and many British considered the Americans rebels and traitors, which by definition meant they were beyond the law and beyond the sovereign’s protection. The Declaration was a political manifesto, de facto declaration of war, and statement of the Americans’ right to exist as a free nation of people possessing liberties endowed by their Creator.
The Declaration of Independence was the product of a democratic process that was the broadest expression of rights and liberties in the world at the time.
Americans by the thousands debated the question of independence for months before the actual Declaration was finally issued and signed. Thomas Paine, the “firebrand of liberty,” persuaded tens of thousands of Americans with the first call for a declaration in his wildly popular tract Common Sense. Although Thomas Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration and was charged by the Continental Congress to write the “rough draught” of the document, he was one member of “The Committee of Five” comprised of congressional delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Each offered comments and exerted influence that either overtly or subtly swayed the genesis of the document. The Congress, meeting as a Committee of the Whole, debated the Declaration and edited it (including the well-known decision to strike language condemning the slave trade and slavery). When the Declaration was approved and signed by John Hancock (presiding officer of the Congress) and Charles Thomson (the secretary of the Congress), about 200 copies were printed for distribution throughout all 13 states and to the Continental Army, which was in the field fighting the British Army. In addition, it was published in newspapers and circulated as broadsides. Even with the omission of language calling for the end of slavery, the Declaration was embraced by men, women, free blacks, and slaves as the promise of a new order for the ages: a government based on the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves.
The Declaration of Independence placed everything the Patriots held dear – their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor – in danger of utter destruction.
By signing their names to the Declaration, the delegates to the Continental Congress likely faced doom if the British captured them or prevailed in the Revolutionary War. The Declaration an was act of treason, punishable by public disgrace and execution by hanging. They were the de facto leadership of the United States, and by issuing the Declaration as an internationally circulated statement of intentions they had bluntly stated that they would pursue revolution, not reconciliation. People declared rebels in Scotland and Ireland earlier in the century had suffered terrible fates, and there was no reason to believe any signer would fare any better. Ordinary Americans fighting for independence faced an equally grim fate. The men and women, white and black, who helped create this nation did so in the face of real danger and great cost – and that sacrifice in the name of principles embodied in the Declaration should be acknowledged, understood, and remembered.
The Declaration of Independence is a relevant document important to the survival of our nation today.
The Declaration helps define us as the land of the free. It has been called by some “the birth notice of the nation,” and it is the first significant statement of the basic freedoms acknowledged as distinctly American. Even with the survival of slavery in the new republic, it set the standard for what the nation should become. Abraham Lincoln used its most important idea to call for a “new birth of freedom” during this nation’s most devastating war fought to end slavery. Civil rights leaders from Reconstruction through the 1960s held up the Declaration’s ideals to remind this nation of its failures in the realm of political equality and liberty. Martin Luther King Jr. used its words to remind a tormented and divided generation that the hope for America was the survival of the American system of liberty and democracy when given to all of the nation’s citizens. Women from Abigail Adams to the suffragettes laid claim to its promises, and still do. Its words remind us that the idea of being “American” is not simply based on the activity of enjoying the economic advantages of this nation’s economy, or simply recognizing the United States as a geographic reality. The words of the Declaration help define us as a unique people, and the value of those words is incalculable at a time when foreign enemies who wish to impose another world system upon our countrymen through violence and terror offer no apology for the words that define them.
The main promise of the Declaration – “that all men are created equal” – is not a racist or sexist statement. It is a promise to all people, at all times.
There is more at stake here then the nature of the English language in the eighteenth century, although it is clear that the Founders meant “all humankind” when they used the word “men.” According to the Declaration, human beings are born equal in life and liberty and we are by nature equally free and independent. We are unequal in ways too numerous to list categorically (such as wealth, status, talents, physical attributes, and many others), but no human, class of humans, or group of humans is superior to another human, class of humans, or group of humans. This is the most important idea in the Declaration of Independence, the basis for true political equality in the United States, and the cynosure of human rights for great Americans such as the Founding Fathers and Mothers, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It excludes no class or race of Americans but embraces all who are willing to acknowledge this self-evident truth.