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In considering the meaning of Independence Day, it may be seen as a day to celebrate a success that demanded vision, inspiration, courage and sacrifice.  In reviewing and contemplating the history of the Declaration of Independence, we can be fortified to face the challenges of today and once again embrace the spirit of those historic revolutionaries.  Though we do not see our current time of crisis as a matter of rebelling against an oppressor, like those revolutionaries we see this as an important time for speaking the truth about the grave assaults, injuries and threats to our rights to breathe good air, drink clean water, eat good food, raise healthy offspring and live in peace.

We invite you to not only consider this history, but to share in a reading or retelling of it as part of your Independence Day celebration.  You may choose to tell your own summary based on your favorite book, websites like The Charters of Freedom, or a movie on the subject (try 1776), or reading aloud our version of a brief history.

A History of the Declaration of Independence (printer-friendly PDF)

A History of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, officially signaled the separation of the colonies from Great Britain, and the beginning of the American Revolution, a Revolution that proclaimed liberty not only for the people of the 13 colonies and the subsequent United States, but for peoples of the entire world. It is, indeed, a moment worth commemorating with great solemnity.

The Declaration was signed by representatives of each of the 13 colonies, each one of whom was keenly aware that he was committing an act of treason in the eyes of Great Britain. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the signers, was reputed to have said, “Let us hang together, or we shall hang separately.” Backed by their respective state assemblies, this courageous and motley group of highly imperfect men, chose to take on the power of Great Britain, and everything that this great power represented in terms of an oppressive power. That they only imperfectly understood what they were setting in motion does not detract from the significance of this critical moment, not only in U.S. history, but in world history.

And this moment can best be understood in terms of what led up to it.

First of all, leaders of the Revolution, men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were educated men, steeped in Greek and Latin classics. John Adams was particularly fond of Cato, the Younger, famous for his moral integrity and resistance to corruption. All of these influential men had huge libraries and wrote often of their joy in spending an evening with one of the great thinkers of the past.

Secondly, although these men were a mixed assembly of Christians and Deists, Humanists and Calvinists, they lived in the Age of Enlightenment that emphasized reason over ecclesiastical authority. The three most important members of the committee to write the Declaration of Independence – Franklin, Adams and Jefferson -were all extremely familiar with the writings of John Locke, George Berkeley, Montesquier, Wollstonecraft, and all the other Enlightenment authors of the time, as well as their American contemporary, Thomas Paine.

Going even further back, the leaders of the American Revolution emerged from a political system which claimed the rights of citizens to limit the powers of a king, no matter how mythical the actual Magna Carta of 1215 was. More importantly, this myth played an important role in the struggle against the Stuarts in England which resulted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which William of Orange was given the throne of England on the condition of his guaranteeing the rights of the English Parliament and of individual citizens. The Declaration of Rights, the formal document in which William of Orange accepted the limitations on the royal powers that Parliament had wrested from the Stuarts was accompanied by a Bill of Rights, which reaffirmed the cherished rights that English men felt had been trampled underfoot by the Stuarts. These included the right of trial by a jury of one’s peers; freedom of speech and assembly; the right to just and equal laws; freedom from self-incrimination; and freedom of worship (except for Catholics). Very significantly, in terms of the American Revolution, it affirmed further that no Englishman would henceforth be taxed without his consent, as channeled through his elected representatives in the House of Commons. Less than a hundred years later,   the war with England would resound with the clarion call of “No taxation without representation”. And the American Bill of Rights would ring with the same words included in the earlier Bill of Rights.

That the American Revolution has too often been betrayed, by the founders themselves as well as their descendents, only provides all of us with more reason to find the spirit that animated the best within it, and to do our best to carry that spirit forward. As Arnold Toynbee said to an American audience in 1961:

“The American Revolution has gone thundering on. Nothing can stop it, no, not even American hands that first set it rolling. But, during these last…years, your revolution has gone on without you. The leadership has fallen into other hands. These non-Americans could never have seized the leadership of your revolution if you had not dropped it. ….But the future is still open. Your role in the coming chapter of the World’s history is not yet irrevocably decided. It is still in your power to re-enter into your heritage. It is still within your power to re-capture the lead in your own revolution.”

~Written by Barbara Riverwoman (2010) under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Generic license. We invite you to share, revise and otherwise play with this text.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 8:10 pm

    For our July 4, 2010 celebration, Barbara told a version of the history of the Declaration that focused more on the philosophical shifts associated with the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther in 1517 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and how that had shaped the thinking of the colonial writers of the Declaration of Independence. We talked about this as a shift away from rights and power being held by the community and channeled through a single leader in a hierarchy, to more distributed rights and power for individuals, and how the focus in 1776 was to carry those changes even further to individuals. Barbara also noted how the Declaration did not have much to say about uniting the thirteen colonies; at the time, they were fairly independent of one another, with distinctive cultures and political systems.


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