The power of words to move the intransigent, the timid, the pessimistic, and the doubting never reached a higher plane than in the second sentence of a declaration of a people to a king put forth on July 4th, 1776.
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.
A revolution had already been underway for the better part of a year when the leaders of thirteen colonies assembled in a Continental Congress in Philadelphia to try to determine whether a common consensus could be achieved regarding the American colonies’ relations with Great Britain. There was no natural consensus. The New England colonies already under attack by British forces were radical in their intentions to sever all ties and declare nationhood. They were led by firebrands from Boston under the astute leadership of John Adams. The middle colonies of Delaware, Maryland, New York, and the all important Pennsylvania were against draconian steps and saw the actions of the British Parliament to be separate from their loyalty to the King. The southern colonies varied from watchful waiting from South Carolina to aggressive individual declarations by colonies such as Virginia and North Carolina. The size and scope of the colonies initially created barriers to a natural confederation and a single voice.
The number of men prepared to step onto the world stage at this congress however was unparalleled in history. Natural leaders such as Washington and Lee, brilliant minds such as Adams and Jefferson, and sage figures such as Franklin, Livingston, Mason and Morris. The recognition of the unique historical nature of the questions they were asking themselves, and the need for unambiguous conclusions dominated every debate. They impressively could see the enormous potential of a republic lead by common men on the unique stage of the American continent, to put in to practice what philosophers from Greece, Rome, and more recently from the Age of Enlightenment had dreamt about. These were learned, successful, self made men who additionally recognized that taking on the greatest military power on earth was frought with great danger and personal risk. As Benjamin Franklin so aptly put to the Congress, ” Gentlemen, we must hang together, or certainly we shall all hang separately.”
By mid- June 1776, efforts at conciliatory diplomacy with Great Britain were met with stiff rejection and dire threats from the King and Parliament, and it became apparent to all that a declared statement for history as to the rationale for a complete independence be defined. It was left to a Committee of Five, formed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to draft a declaration. The actual writing fell to Jefferson, the editing to the others and a draft was available to the congress to debate on June 28th, 1776. The original draft was dramatically sculpted with 25% of the prose removed, including anti-slavery text accusing the King of “creating” the calamity of slavery removed. Jefferson was unhappy with the haphazard attack on his carefully crafted words, but the document’s incredible force was preserved in its first two immortal sentences. The first declaring the natural law entailed in the reasonable conclusion of the need for a complete independence and severance of ties:
“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 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.”
An extended list of grievences then set the foundation for the final paragraph that stated the intention of thirteen disparate colonies to act as one a form a unique entity, a unified country of free men self ruled:
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.
On July 2nd, the individual colonies were called to roll, and each finally declared its intentions – the initial no votes of South Carolina and Pennsylvania were reversed, Delaware converted its vote from abstention to in favor, andNew York abstained. With 12 votes yeah and one abstention the declaration of independence was passed, and publicly presented on July4th, 1776.
History was forever changed by the group of men who formulated and signed the Declaration of Independence. The elements of the declaration became the foundation of freedom movements the world over, from the French revolution to the revolutions of South America, to the modern inflections in the movements in eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. The strength lies in those words, All Men are Created Equal, and the recognition that the men who expressed it had no way of knowing if they would ever see its fruition. It mattered enough to them, and ultimately to us, that regardless of trial or tribulation, the words speak an eternal truth. Happy Birthday, America.