Tag Archives: John Adams

Congress Decides A Declaration of Independence Is Necessary

The Committee of Five

The Committee of Five

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to appoint a committee that would draft a declaration of independence. Some historians have humorously referred to this group (called the Committee of Five) as “Jefferson and Co.” It is true that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first draft (called the “Rough Draught”) of the Declaration, written with the natural rights philosophy of John Locke, George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (published June 12, 1776), his own drafts of the Preamble to the Virginia Constitution and the essay Summary View of the Rights of British Americans, as well as the need to defend the American cause firmly in mind. However, the other members of the committee – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman – offered invaluable contributions. Both Adams and Franklin revised the original draft, making specific recommendations regarding Jefferson’s wording and content.
Additionally, the entire Committee of Five read and revised this intermediate draft. On June 28, the draft then was submitted to Congress, which revised the text further, including the removal of Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade and the addition as a final paragraph of a resolution passed July 2 declaring independence, before approving the final version.

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Is This Thomas Jefferson? Scholars Claim An Oil Painting Might Be the Earliest Portrait of the Declaration’s Author

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

A 1785 oil painting by the French artist Nicolas Delapierre showing a gentleman seated at a desk and beginning to write on a sheet of paper might be the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted while the author of the Declaration of Independence was the United States’s minister to France.

O. Roy Chalk, who also purchased the renowned 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson now at Monticello, owned the painting for more than 41 years. The entrepreneur was an enthusiastic art collector who used his considerable fortune earned from interests in real estate, airlines, bus companies, newspapers and a rail line that hauled bananas in Central America to purchase works of art by notable works by Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mary Cassatt, among others. Chalk died in 1995.

Omnis, Inc., a Virginia consulting firm of  researchers, is examining the painting in an effort to authenticate who appears in the portrait. The painting portrays an unidentified eighteenth-century gentleman seated at a desk, cravat undone, and putting quill pen to paper. He is holding a copy of a book titled De la Caisse d’Escompte, written by the French orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, several years before Mirabeau achieved prominence as a leading figure in the French Revolution. The book sharply criticizes methods of financial speculation popular in pre-Revolutionary France. Many of Jefferson’s economic ideals were influenced by Mirabeau,  and echoes of the French commentator’s critiques color Jefferson’s distaste for “stock -jobbers,” the National Bank, and aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s financial plans during the early Federal period.

The researchers established a Web site to release information about the painting, describe current research regarding its subject, and solicit additional information from the public. The Web site has a page called “Jefferson Connections” that offers tantalizing details such as similarities of facial features in the portrait and circumstantial historical evidence that indicates the painting could be a portrait commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Particularly fascinating is the fact that the painting is similar to composition to a mirror image portrait of John Adams, Jefferson’s close friend, painted by Mather Brown. According to the Web site, unless the parallels in these two portraits are mere coincidences it appears that Brown had access to the 1785 Delapierre portrait in London when he painted the Adams portrait there in 1788.

The site also urges any readers with relevant information about the Delapierre painting to contact the researchers.

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Who Says U.S. Political History Never Has Any Laughs?

Consider the link above a much-needed palate cleanser. CNN offers a collection of ten of the funniest lines ever uttered in the history of the Republic’s contentious political history. It even has a personal favorite courtesy of John Adams, a.k.a. The Voice of Liberty and one of the minds behind the Declaration of Independence: “In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.”

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August 20, 2012 · 3:34 pm

The Musical “1776” and History’s Most Obnoxious Revolution

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend SOMEBODY!” – John Adams, in the musical 1776

Last night, I had the opportunity to see a charming production of 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical that did much to humanize the Founding Fathers and present the issues surrounding American independence in a literate and often humorous light. What I saw was an excellent local production, so you will have to tolerate a momentary and shameless plug for the Camelot Theater Company: The show runs through July 22, and it is well-worth seeing if you happen to be in Oregon’s Rogue Valley any time soon.
There is a lot of commentary regarding the historical accuracy of 1776. True, there are dramatic liberties that still grate on my nerves when I see the musical, including the brilliant Oscar-nominated 1973 film adaptation of the Broadway play. Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia delegate who offered the resolution for American Independence, was called the “Cicero of Virginia,” hardly the openly horny doofus portrayed on stage for comic relief. Half of the Second Continental Congress did not walk out over the issue of slavery, although national unanimity hinged on the removal of the anti-slavery clause from Jefferson’s Rough Draught of the Declaration. John Adams did not import Jefferson’s wife to Philadelphia to sexually refresh the Pen of Liberty – in fact, Jefferson’s frequent absences from Monticello while he was in Congress contributed to the physical stress that almost certainly exacerbated Martha Jefferson’s chronic illness. (In the musical, Jefferson’s character is portrayed as wishing to leave Philadelphia for a conjugal visit rather than write the Declaration. Actually, in the summer of 1776 Martha Jefferson had a miscarriage and was grievously ill. Jefferson wished to depart because he feared for the life of his beloved spouse). John Adams, the Voice of Liberty, was known for his prickly demeanor and outspoken embrace of independence far ahead of most of the other delegates – yet, he was one of the most respected and admired men in Congress from any colony.
Still, the musical “gets it” when it comes to the majority of the history. Much of the dialogue is the words of the actual men. Musical numbers in the production often do a better job than some history books in teaching people why American Independence was such a thorny problem. “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” points out that Americans (not just those at the top of the colonial social pyramid) were among the wealthiest, least-taxed people in the world. Why would anybody in their right mind in any century sever that kind political and economic relationship in exchange for an untried democratic experiment? (As an educational comparison, I often half-teasingly point out to my environmentally sensitive students that for a generation anxious about global warming I still see a lot of gasoline-powered autos in student parking.) “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” will make anyone cringe when they understand how the song accurately points out that all of America was economically tied to slavery: “Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade/Hail slavery, the New England dream!/Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:/Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!/Who stinketh the most?” It is an intensely powerful indictment of our nation’s greatest weakness during the greatest revolution in world history. Even more powerful are the steady stream of dispatches from George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Like much of the musical, the lines are based on Washington’s actual writings and they portray the grinding difficulties and overwhelming odds that he and the soldiers in the field faced when fighting the most well-funded and militarily adept empire since ancient Rome. Anyone interested in a summary of the historical facts presented in 1776 would do well to look at James Troutman’s Web page or this article from the Yeshiva University newspaper.

However, one of the best things about 1776 is how it portrays the incivility of our democratic revolution and why conflict aided our nation’s cause. While reading the Director’s Notes written by Livia Genise, I was struck by her comments: “This is an election year. What may be at stake, in the opinion of many Americans, is our very way of life. So many people have already lost their homes, their pensions, their jobs. In the last four years, gun sales have soared and civility diminished. We seem to be, as a nation, on the verge of a not so-civil-war. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from our founding fathers [sic] is empathy, compassion and respect for all who make up the melting pot that is America.” I won’t win any popularity contests by dumping on a local theater director, and I want to make clear she directed a fine performance. But, the frequently expressed idea that America has somehow lost a Golden Age of Civility always strikes me as well-meaning but ahistorical and naïve sentimentalism. Furthermore, it ignores the historical themes (highly accurate ones, I might add) captured by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, the authors of 1776 , that are there for all to see. (As for gun sales, two thoughts: Is Ms. Genise perhaps thinking of the Obama administration’s ill-advised Operation Fast and Furious? In 1776, would Great Britain have walked away from their wealthiest colonial prize without armed struggle? Sometimes, harsh language against an adversary isn’t enough and the British sent the largest amphibious invasion force in history before D-Day to destroy the American Revolution.)
The Second Continental Congress was often a contentious group. The colonies were notorious for the sheer absence of continental, i.e. intercolonial, cooperation. John Adams once wrote:

“The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.”

Differences, even brusquely expressed, are part of the mechanism of a healthy democracy. Often, the conflict will eventually lead to compromise of surprising kinds. The musical puts it even more succinctly when Benjamin Franklin’s character urges John Adam’s character to compromise on slavery for the sake of founding a liberty-loving nation:

“John, the issue here is independence! Maybe you have forgotten that fact, but I have not! These men, no matter how much we may disagree with them, they are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about – they are proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies. And whether you like them or not, they and the people they represent will be part of this new nation that YOU hope to create. Now, either learn how to live with them, or pack up and go home! In any case, stop acting like a Boston fishwife.”

One can’t forgive slavery, but forming a new nation with the institution of slavery intact either demonstrates the limits of civility or the power of differences in a democracy – or both. We are still working that issue out as a nation.

Finally, calling George III a tyrant was about as uncivil an act as one could accomplish in the free-wheeling political life of British North America. The Declaration of Independence declares that “a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Throughout the Declaration the words tyrant, tyrants, and tyranny occur a total of four times. Definitions of “tyrant” and “tyranny” were both specific and potent in the political vocabulary of the age – and very rarely used. Kings were expected to consider their people’s welfare and the just administration of government as their first duties. Certainly, Mr. Jefferson and others could have named numerous examples both ancient and modern of men who had breached that expectation, but all the more reason for men who had come from the freest political culture of the time to watch a king and judge his actions. Their grandfathers had memories of a similar situation in English history, and knew the dangers of a king who placed self-interest above all else. “For he being supposed to have all, both legislative and executive power in himself alone, there is no judge to be found, no appeal lies open to any one, who may fairly, and indifferently, and with authority decide, and from whose decision relief and redress may be expected of any injury or inconviency [sic], that may be suffered from the prince, or by his order …,” wrote John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), which provided the intellectual arguments for the removal of James II during the Glorious Revolution as he described the dangers of a king dedicated to absolute power above all else. “For he that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary. He that would have been insolent and injurious in the woods of America, would not probably be much better in a throne; where perhaps learning and religion shall be found out to justify all that he shall do to his subjects, and the sword presently silence all those that dare question it.”
Again, the musical presents the main idea very clearly:

John Dickinson: Mr. Jefferson, I have very little interest in your paper, as there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve all but heard the last of it, but I am curious about one thing. Why do you refer to King George as a… tyrant?
Thomas Jefferson: Because he is a tyrant.
John Dickinson: I remind you, Mr. Jefferson, that this “tyrant” is still your king.
Thomas Jefferson: When a king becomes a tyrant, he thereby breaks the contract binding his subjects to him.
John Dickinson: How so?
Thomas Jefferson: By taking away their rights.
John Dickinson: Rights that came from him in the first place.
Thomas Jefferson: All except one. The right to be free comes from nature.
John Dickinson: And are we not free, Mr. Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson: Homes entered without warrant, citizens arrested without charge, and in many places, free assembly itself denied.
John Dickinson: No one approves of such things, but these are dangerous times.

There is one kind of safe society where no words are ever raised in harsh criticism. Jefferson once wrote, “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.[I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful slavery.] Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
That’s the beauty of the musical 1776. As I often written on these pages, I do not expect popular culture to present in-depth historical analysis. But a historically accurate, entertaining dramatic production (with more than a little light-hearted comedy as forgivable distraction) will sometimes do more than volumes of history to teach people why the United States is an exceptional nation. One of our exceptional qualities is like the Founding Fathers’ old habits. We often argue our way to liberty, not always with the hand-holding, “kumbayah” moralizing that some want but with a messy process called democracy. Like one of the characters in the play says, “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.”

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“Gentleman” Was More Than A Word On A Restroom Door

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

To some, it might seem naïve or even déclassé to honor the document’s closing words: “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.” We are a more secular age, and for many (particularly our opinion makers) patriotism is a suspect idea – many in academe say it smacks of “triumphalism,” an irrational belief in the superiority of the American experience. Much has been said in recent decades regarding the short-comings of the Revolutionary generation; much of it has been enlightening, even brilliant; some of it seems reflective of the anger and cynicism of academics who have in the words of the historian David Hackett Fischer “lost interest in liberty and freedom.” Fischer reminds those who write American history that “to lose touch with liberty and freedom is to condemn themselves to complete irrelevance in American and the world,” an intellectual failure that “severely weakened their own causes and done grave injury to public discourse and civic spirit in the United States.” It is worth remembering that with all their faults, their sometimes faltering steps toward representative democracy, and their contradictions expressed in word and deed, the men and women who trusted in the words of the Declaration of Independence had no idea whether the words it contained would survive to transform their lives in a nation that survived long enough to secure the Declaration’s promises. Some of them risked everything they held dear because of the side they chose. Some of us today might be uncomfortable with traditional admiration for a risky attempt at gaining a nation based on freedom and liberty. The Founders did not have the luxury of hindsight or a long-established nation that would have offered them the privilege to cynically appraise the sincerity of their actions.

In order to secure the claims for the American people promised in the Declaration of Independence, the United States needed to win a war against the greatest imperial power of the times. That imperial power possessed the best-trained equipped army of the time, backed by the best equipped and largest navy in the world. All of this military might was backed by the strongest system of public finance in the world and supported by at least 1/5 of the population of the 13 American colonies. The American Revolution was nothing less than a fight for national survival. Unless the Americans secured through warfare an independent state with the ability to govern themselves under their own authority and under their own laws, the republican philosophy of self-government, political equality, natural rights, and Whig tradition of expanding freedoms summarized in the Declaration would remain what had been in Europe, namely interesting political theory that was much debated, but little practiced. America’s success in this venture hinged on a war fought while facing long odds. We often forget how outlandish the proposition called “The United States of America” appeared in the 1770s to many other Americans and the political class of the 18th-century world. George Washington lost more battles than he ever won; American prisoners of war were often treated with cruelty; American women were often assaulted by British troops; Valley Forge is a by-word in American history for an army that suffered and died. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Gage’s forces sent to Lexington and Concord had orders to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both signers of the Declaration. Internet hagiography regarding the signers and their supposed sufferings abound, but it is a fact signers such as John Hart (a delegate from New Jersey) had his home burnt to the ground in the dead of winter by British forces, killing his children in the flames. Another New Jersey delegate, the Rev. John Witherspoon (then the president of what became Princeton University) had his library purposely destroyed by British soldiers who torched Nassau Hall. He spent most of his income on reconstruction efforts for the college after the war, nearly going broke. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he 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 to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginiawho said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts“I shall 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.” This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.

Keeping those facts in mind, it is not hard to imagine how the revolutionary generation placed their lives and fortunes at stake. They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 232 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-centuryAmerica had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer,Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document.

Honor meant much to these men, too. They rejoiced in the title “gentleman,” a word that we today simply place on restroom doors. Good name, reputation, and status mattered because these qualities were the basis of their place in society. Honor mattered because they saw life as a public drama where you could be praised or blamed for your actions that were played out in front of the world, and the wrong choice could mark you for life as someone not worthy of the word “gentleman.”  Like any human beings, they had enormous flaws and their lives were often a contradiction of the ideals they followed. Yet, at least they aspired to those ideals, a quality singularly lacking even in recent American presidents, members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities, and sports figures. When they signed the Declaration they jeopardized what the world would think of their character, morality, and integrity. However, they considered it the right thing to do, and they often described how to continue doing the right thing to the younger generation that came in their wake. Thomas Jefferson, writing to his nephew Peter Carr, gave him this advice:

When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these, then, your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.

Honor was also very much part of the literary culture of the English language, the mother tongue that the Founders still adored even if they could no longer love the realm that gave them their cultural and intellectual birth. Among the three men most instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – many things bound them together, including a shared love of the works of William Shakespeare. Adams quoted him frequently in his writings and letters to his wife Abigail; Franklin ensured that the Philadelphia lending library had adequate copies of the Bard’s complete works; and Jefferson, a lifelong lover of theater, read Shakespeare’s plays his entire life and kept several editions of his complete works in his library at Monticello.  Perhaps the three men would have agreed that like Henry V in his namesake play, honor was worth the hazard when the cause was right, even if they and their cause stood in the shadow of overwhelming force and long odds.

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

They did not die in 1776, nor did the revolution they helped bring to the world. It was won only through one ofAmerica’s longest wars, fought against the global superpower of the age, based on political theories that up to the time had only enjoyed intellectual debate rather than practical application. Their honor was intact because they kept their promise: They created a nation where ordinary people could govern themselves because they made liberty and freedom their standard; they offered an asylum to the world searching for freedom and opportunity; and they set an example for all humankind that tolled the end of empires and the beginning of nations.

We should honor them.

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Some Presidents’ Day Reflections Regarding the Importance of the Declaration of Independence

      

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.

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Trumbull, Again: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery”

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

 

Courtesy of Alabama Live, news that the Birmingham Museum of Art will host a display of American art including the original 21-by-31-inch painting upon which John Trumbull based his titanic “Declaration of Independence” that hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The article contains a good summary of the painting’s patriotic mythology but also an analysis of  Trumbull’s technique. The smaller original painting pre-dated the 1817 colossus, which many art critics consider inferior to the smaller work. Still, the painting is a familiar icon and stunning achievement as anyone who has seen it at the U.S. Capitol can attest. The article also has a handy identification key so you can know “who’s who” in either painting.  The exhibit, which also includes more than 200 other examples of historic American art from the Yale University Art Gallery, is through January 10, 2010.

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