“The Declaration of Independence [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and the rights of man.” –Thomas Jefferson
If our nation’s Founders could visit us on this, our 232nd Independence Day, what would they make of us? What would they declare of us?
A hint can be discerned in a letter from John Adams to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, as the Declaration of Independence had just been approved. “It ought to be commemorated,” said the man who would become our second president, “as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Day’s Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
Americans have maintained the “Pomp and Parade” for more than two centuries now, and the “Bonfires and Illuminations” are commonplace, but how often do we recognize Independence Day as “the Day of Deliverance?” How often do we honor it with “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty”? How often do we contemplate the cost of our freedom, “the Toil and Blood and Treasure?”
Our Founders believed that independence was more than a choice; they viewed our break from royal rule as necessary.
Consider the first statement of the Declaration: “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 the 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.”
The signatories were emphatic that separation from the crown was not only an objective, but an obligation: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. –Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.” In conclusion, the Founders wrote, “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation….”
Their cause, of course, was not anti-government. Rather they objected to the misgovernment of the king, saying, “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Furthermore, the Americans had been patient, petitioning their British rulers for redress for over a decade. Armed hostilities had commenced on April 19, 1775, at the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the colonists faced the full power of the British Empire in their quest for American independence.
One year before taking that step for nationhood, on July 5, 1775, the Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, beseeching the British king for a peaceful resolution of the American colonies’ grievances. A day later, that same Congress resolved the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms.”
King George III refused to read the peace petition and assembled his armies. On July 2, 1776, Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for a formal declaration of separation passed, and the document was ordered printed on July 4.
The war-weary among us today might ask, was independence really necessary?
To pose the question at the outset of the Revolutionary War was to answer it. Representatives of the colonial Americans realized that, in voicing this query, they already possessed proof that they, not the King of England, were legitimate instruments of self-government for their countrymen. How could circumstances be otherwise when the king offered no remedy for his subjects’ complaints, no guarantee their rights would be respected, and no means for them to govern themselves in their new lands?
The founders knew, however, that power could not be its own justification. They recognized that only an appeal to overarching laws, binding the king as much as his subjects, was legitimate. And abuse of authority demonstrated disqualification of any governor, whether a monarch or a purported representative.
We would do well to apply this insight to the political debates of today.
Indeed, two competing philosophies of government at odds during the American Revolution have reappeared, with the anti-republican form seen in those politicians who would seek to gain favor by manipulating language and misrepresenting their positions. Royalists, on the other hand, believed that the king was divinely ordained to rule over the people and was therefore above the law. This view is manifest currently in government officials – especially our elected officers – who believe they may properly command the citizenry to whatever they please, to whichever they purport to be for the good of the people.
As Thomas Jefferson observed, “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.” Yet the prevailing philosophy of government proposes exactly this – that directions from Washington as to how we must conduct ourselves, in matters large and small, will lead inexorably to scarcity and will inevitably erode our freedom.
Our system of government today is not so different from the monarchy we escaped, except that a swarm of bureaucrats have taken up the throne.
A necessity thus presents itself to us as well: We must reconnect with the timeless principles that inspired our Founding Fathers; those same principles that long ago gave birth to a good, great and God-blessed nation.
“[W]hat do we mean by the American Revolution?” reflected John Adams. “Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations…. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”
Let us celebrate this Independence Day 2008 in a manner that Adams himself might recognize – with “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty,” and with a rededication to the principles of our necessary American Revolution. And as always, in the words of George Washington, “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”