Who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and what does it say?
What did the Founding Fathers leave out?
Why don't we celebrate July 2 instead of the Fourth?
On this most historic of American holidays, it seems fitting to ask these questions, and to wonder if most Americans can answer them. Why do Americans groan at the mention of history and care so little about the events that shaped our present? "Dumbed-down" textbooks, watered-down history curricula and mass-media gloss-overs all deserve a measure of blame for our national shortcoming.
And that is sad. America's exciting past has been dulled into a historical equivalent of C-Span at its worst. Such fascinating personalities as Washington and Jefferson have become marble-ized icons. Maybe that's why only a third of the students in an infamous survey of American teenagers could identify the Declaration of Independence as the document that marked the formal separation of the 13 Colonies from England.
With that failure in mind, it seems pertinent to look back today at what the Declaration of Independence says -- as well as at what was left out -- and get a reintroduction to its author. As another American icon, Bart Simpson, might put it, Thomas Jefferson was a "radical dude."
Philosopher, lawyer, scientist, architect, diplomat, president, Jefferson was born in 1743 to a well-fixed Albemarle County family in Virginia. In 1769, after providing local voters with the requisite quantity of rum punch, Jefferson won election to the House of Burgesses and was drawn to the patriotic circle surrounding Patrick ("Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death") Henry. Jefferson did not attend the First Continental Congress in 1774, but he was dispatched to the Second Congress in Philadelphia.
By then, events had already come to a head. The fighting at Lexington and Concord. "Common Sense." Bunker Hill. And in June 1776, while Congress was in session, rebel defenders turned back a British assault on Charleston, S.C. That crucial victory came three weeks after Virginia's Richard Henry Lee put forward a three-part resolution to declare the Colonies independent, to form foreign alliances and prepare a plan of confederation. In an early test of the thumb-sucking tradition it would later perfect, Congress put off action on Lee's proposal and formed committees, one for each of these points.
Drawing up a document declaring America free was not a choice committee assignment. John Adams and Ben Franklin, already America's first international media star, were joined by New York conservative Robert Livingston and Connecticut representative Roger Sherman. To maintain regional political balance, a Southerner was needed on the committee and Adams lobbied for Jefferson, who was an acceptable compromise to both radicals pressing for independence and conservatives who hoped to preserve ties with England. Although Adams and Jefferson later became bitter political rivals, Adams now deferred to the Virginian because he knew Jefferson could write ten times better than he could.
A reluctant author, Jefferson wanted to be back in Virginia. His wife was ill and a state constitution was being drafted; Jefferson hoped to shape it. But closeting himself, he set to work, writing on a cigar-box-size portable desk he had designed. Drawing freely from the Enlightenment's greats, Jefferson reached that perfectly realized statement of purpose: "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... ."
Jefferson's Declaration went on to explain in simple terms the legitimate justification for government, including the subversive notion that governments derive "their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." He followed with a laundry list of charges against King George III -- inflated somewhat by revolutionary rhetoric -- which became the document's most controversial section.
Jefferson's draft went to the committee, which suggested minor changes and passed the document on to Congress on June 28. On July 2, Lee's resolution declaring the Colonies to be independent of England was passed by 12 of the 13 state delegations. Jubilant John Adams was sure the date would go down in history.
Jefferson's Declaration didn't come to a vote for another two long, hot days. The headstrong, 32-year-old author chafed as Congress bickered and postured over his language and ideas. The other delegates demanded revisions, all of which Jefferson considered "deplorable," and 86 changes were made to his original (which was lost). The most debated point was Jefferson's rather odd and inaccurate charge that the King was responsible for the slave trade. At the insistence of Southern delegates, joined by Northerners who had profited from what Jefferson called "this execrable commerce," the mention of slavery was removed.
With history's perfect hindsight, cynicism about the Congress and Jefferson comes easily. For the intriguing puzzle remains: How could a man who embodied Enlightenment ideals and wrote so eloquently about equality keep slaves, as Jefferson did?
Having argued against aspects of slavery as a lawyer, Jefferson was conflicted about slavery. Perhaps he hoped that in the spirit of the moment, a turning point in American attitudes had been reached. At worst, Jefferson may have simply reflected his times and thought of slaves as being less than men, not an unusual notion in his day. The contradiction seems glaring, but to dismiss Jefferson's accomplishments for it is frivolous.
On the evening of July 4, two days after the vote for independence, Jefferson's Declaration was adopted as an explanation of the Congress's actions. Within days, it was read to cheering crowds throughout the Colonies, where public reaction included effigy-hangings and mock burials of George III. In New York -- Donald Trump take note -- debtors were freed from prison.
But more in tune with the mordant air in Congress was an exchange attributed to John Hancock and Ben Franklin. At the signing, Hancock urged unanimity. "There must be no pulling different ways," he said. "We must hang together."
"Yes," replied the inimitable Franklin. "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
In our own near-giddy times, in which intoxicating independence is breaking out around the world as feverishly as one of Madonna's catchier dance tunes, it is interesting to recall something else Jefferson penned. After the Revolution, when a Massachusetts farmers' revolt threatened the new state, Jefferson sent a note from Paris. "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. ... The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."