America’s audacious independence

Istock/kortemeyer
Signatures on the US Declaration of Independence.

It was an audacious and brave statement. On July 4, 1776, 56 men adopted what we now know as the Declaration of Independence, officially separating and divorcing themselves from Great Britain.

Their patience was exhausted. They were done with the mistreatment by the tyrannical rule of the despotic King George III who ruthlessly lorded over the 13 colonies and imposed economic sanctions on them, all without representation in the halls of power.

The members of the Second Continental Congress declared in the soaring and searing words of the Declaration that they were free and independent states and were no longer a political appendage to the most powerful nation on Earth.

The chief author of the Declaration of Independence was 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, a shy man who preferred his pen to public speaking. He was assigned the task of drafting the statement that would be debated and eventually adopted by Congress. His draft minced no words about the grievances that led the colonies to declare their separation from the mother country.

On the drafting committee was Jefferson’s friend and collaborator, John Adams. Adams was bombastic and brilliant, but unpolished. The man from Massachusetts ardently argued for independence.

While Jefferson consulted the members of the committee, it was Jefferson’s words that formed the basis of this groundbreaking document.

Like any writer, Jefferson was troubled when Congress debated and edited his masterpiece while he silently watched the proceedings.

It was an audacious thing for this band of politicians to do. The signers knew their lives were on the line. Declaring independence was one thing, but first the ragtag army held together by the imposing and magisterial George Washington had to win the war with Great Britain. If they lost the war, the signers and others who dared question the authoritarian monarch would be quickly executed.

At the stroke of a pen, the men who signed the document put themselves at great personal and economic risk. When Jefferson penned the Declaration, he included words that reflected the stark reality of what was on the line noting, “and for 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.” Much was at stake.

The wise and elderly Benjamin Franklin was there. Upon adoption of the Declaration, it is reputed that he soberly quipped that “We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately.” Whether he actually said this, it was nevertheless true.

July 4, 1776 was just the beginning of the great American experiment in self-government. It was still an unformed nation with much work to be done to institutionalize and make a reality of the words of the Declaration’s preamble “that all men are created equal.”

On July 2, 1776, Congress provisionally adopted a resolution approving the Declaration of Independence. Adams was elated and proclaimed to his wife that July 2 would henceforth for generations to come be celebrated with great fanfare and fireworks. He was wrong by two days. It wasn’t until July 4 that Congress formally adopted the Declaration, and the Fourth of July became known as Independence Day.

In early 1781, almost five years after declaring independence from Great Britain, a loose constitution was put into operation for the embryonic nation. As it turned out, the Articles of Confederation were ineffective, and were replaced with a new Constitution adopted in 1788. The actual beginning of the new government we know today didn’t start until April 30, 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated as the nation’s first president in New York City.

Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration was one of his proudest moments. “Author of the Declaration of Independence” is what he had inscribed on his tombstone, not even mentioning his two terms as president.

In an ironic twist of fate and history, Jefferson and his onetime good friend, later bitter political rival, and finally reconciled friend, John Adams, both died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the momentous adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

Little did the 56 signers know or even imagine what they were birthing 246 years ago. They were making it up as they went along, as we all do in life and politics. These clear-headed men stood for principles. They were committed to truth that is in rare supply in some corners of our political world today.

These brave men made a bold statement against authoritarianism. I wonder how they would respond to the dangerous drift in our nation today toward embracing autocratic leadership rather than loyalty to the principles of self-government and truth.

Our founding fathers were flawed giants. The Declaration of Independence was written by a white male slaveholder who nevertheless declared that “all men are created equal.” There are no perfect leaders. Jefferson’s soaring words still stand as an inspiration for what this nation has always aspired to embody: the equality of all people under the law.

We’ve come a long way as a nation but still have a long way to go to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. May we stand firm in resisting the impulses that would allow us to sink into the oppression of totalitarianism and may we embrace equality and the rich diversity of all stripes of Americans as we celebrate the truth of the Declaration of Independence on this Fourth of July.  

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian, the author of the “Presidential Friendships: How They Changed History,” and the founder of PresidentialHistory.com.

Tags Benjamin Franklin Fourth of July George Washington independence Independence Day John Adams July 4 self government

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