Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The significance of the Declaration of Independence has not diminished

It was a hot and balmy summer of 1776 when the Continental Congress, 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 a formal declaration from the colonists to the King of England, stating in no uncertain terms, the 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. It took nearly a month to complete the first draft  draft to present to Congress and several days to amend and eventually ratify it. In order to make it clear to King George that the colonies maintained a unified stance against England, the Continental Congress declared that ratification of the Declaration had to be unanimous. 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. It is important to understand that historical events must be judged within the context of its time thus while the document may seem incomplete, hypocritical, or flawed in 2017, it wasn't necessarily viewed as such in 1776. It is important to take into account the culture and events of the time in which it was written. Take for example the issue of slavery: 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 and separation from England was an even greater issue at that moment and had to be acquired 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. The innate desire to be free fueled the sacrifices on both the battlefront and homefront. The Continental Army was essentially a ragtag collection of poorly trained and under-equipped men (and even some women!) who left their jobs, farms, and families behind to fight against the most powerful military force in the world, knowing the odds were against them. They fought in the worst conditions and thousands died from pneumonia, malnutrition and disease. The women who followed the soldiers supported them by doing laundry, cooking and nursing the sick and injured. These women endured much hardship but stayed with their camps, following them from one battle to another. On the homefront, the families left behind forged ahead without their husbands, fathers and sons. Women were especially important as they ran farms and businesses, defended their homes and families from invading troops and supplied food, garments and ammunition to militias. Some women even served as spies.  America's war for independence was won through the sacrifices made by all -- on the battlefield and the homefront. The colonists knew what was at stake and losing the fight for independence was not an option.

Two hundred forty-one years after it was signed, the Declaration of Independence has not lost its significance. It inspires us to do better and to strive to uphold the principles outlined in it -- among them -- that all men are created equal, the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and that government derives its power from the consent of the people.  Not only do we have an obligation to defend and uphold equality and freedom here in America; we have a responsibility to support and encourage people in oppressed nations around the world in their quest for the same.


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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. 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.