Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The significance of the Declaration of Independence

It was a hot and balmy summer of 1776 when a group of fifty-six delegates from the thirteen colonies convened in a meeting hall in Philadelphia to discuss, among other things, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. This document was the formal declaration from the colonists to the King of England, stating in no uncertain terms, their intent to form an independent and sovereign nation. The delegates chose five men to write this document; Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson and it took nearly one month to come up with a draft to present to Congress and several days to amend and eventually ratify it. To show a unified stance against the King, the ratification of the Declaration had to be unanimous. In the end it was all or nothing, there could be no dissenters. When the fifty-six delegates signed their names to this document, they essentially placed a bounty on their own heads for they knew should the war for independence be lost, they would surely be hanged.

The Declaration of Independence is often criticized because of the alleged hypocrisy of the statement "All men are created equal" at a time when slavery was prevalent and women's rights did not exist. However, this document cannot be judged by applying modern standards. A good historian knows that historical events must be viewed within the context of their time thus while the Document may seem incomplete, hypocritical, or flawed in 2012, it was not necessarily viewed as such in 1776. To understand the significance and impact of the Declaration of Independence, one must take into account the events of the time in which it was written. Take for example the issue of slavery which is one that is brought up time and time again when discussing the Declaration.

The Declaration of Independence initially included a paragraph related to slavery however in order to ensure ratification by the Southern colonies, Jefferson had to remove it. While slavery was an important human rights issue, independence was an even greater issue at that moment and needed to be addressed first. There is no question however that while the Declaration did not address specifically the issue of slavery, it was symbolically important in later years in the quest to abolish slavery in the United States.

The Declaration of Independence is a testament to the human spirit and man's desire to be free. Consider for a moment the Continental Army which was essentially a ragtag collection of poorly trained and under-equipped men who left their jobs, farms, and families behind to fight against the most powerful military force in the world, knowing full well the odds against them. They fought tirelessly in the worst conditions, thousands died from pneumonia, malnutrition and disease. Despite the odds, they persevered. This was not just due to amazing leadership, it was that the desire to be free was so overwhelming, it gave the men something to fight for. So much was at stake that losing was not an option.

The Declaration of Independence and the brave men who risked their lives by signing it and the sacrifice of the brave men and women who gave their lives and fought for the principles outlined in the Declaration still continue to serve as an example to millions of oppressed people around the world who yearn for freedom. Two hundred thirty-six years after the signing, the significance of the Declaration has not diminished. If anything it has only become more important.

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