“…the Year of Our Independence,…”
In the early days of the republic, and only occasionally since then, official U.S. documents would reference the events of 1776, as in the “Eighteenth day of August in the Twenty ninth year of our Independence.” Has “independence” become less important to the citizens of the United States?
The reasons for declaring independence from Great Britain are contained in the Declaration of Independence. Some of the reasons had to do with the relations between Britain and its American colonies, some had to do with the actions of King George III, and some had to do with individual freedoms. Some of the accusations set forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration’s bill of particular grievances found remedies in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights ratified over a decade later.
Every summer, like many New York City Jews, my family made its way to a kuchelein in the Catskills, between Monticello and South Fallsburg. We went there when the public school year ended, returning home after Labor Day. The fathers, including mine, appeared Friday nights and left after dinner on Sundays.
My father was in the Army during World War II. We started going to the Catskills in 1948, two years after he was discharged. My father, a second generation American, was imbued with patriotism. Although qualified for an officer’s commission, he enlisted as an ordinary soldier. Although qualified for an age deferment, he enlisted while he had an infant son, me.
My father had his rituals. Every Fourth of July, The New York Times printed a replica of the Declaration of Independence (a practice that still continues). My father would cut out that year’s version and have my sister and I sit with him as he read it out loud to us.
I don’t know if other parents did — or still do — the same. I don’t think so, because some of the discussions I hear about the Declaration, the Constitution, and American history in general seem to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of these documents and the circumstances surrounding them.
Under the guise of political correctness — a concept as firm as Jell-O — it is popular to excoriate Jefferson as a slave owner, rather than praise him as the skilled drafter of the Declaration and other political manifestos, and a successful political scientist, diplomat, and president.
Look at the inspiring prose of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration, particularly the first two paragraphs: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” It is natural to break bonds. It is in the course of human events. The breaking of such bonds does not come lightly, but can be necessary. The reasons are given later in Jefferson’s indictment of Britain and King George.
“… 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… “ The colonies were declaring themselves as having separate and equal station among the powers of the earth. This has particular meaning when interpreting the Constitution. Each colony was declaring itself to be equal to the other powers of the earth, a State under international law. This is why we are the United States, not just America. Under the Constitution, the States ceded specified powers to the new federal government. The federal government is the creation of the States, not vice-versa. Additionally, there was a belief in a Creator and a set of laws, Natural Law, which is higher than manmade law. One its tenets was liberty.
“… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation… “To achieve legitimacy, the newly formed States appealed to mankind to be recognized by other nations.
The second paragraph begins with perhaps Jefferson’s most memorable words.
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…
Again, there is an invocation of the Creator who has, under Natural Law, endowed all people with “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The list of unalienable rights is not inclusive; there are others. Most importantly, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” Again, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. A government which rules by diktat is not just.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. This Fourth of July, in addition to the traditional barbecue and fireworks, take the time to read the document the holiday is about. Discuss it with others and ask whether currently the Declaration’s goals are being met.