MORE THAN 130 British ships had set sail from Nova Scotia on June 9, on their way to the rebellious American colonies. The king of England had hired thousands of German mercenaries. The British penalty for treason was death and confiscation of one’s estate. These were some of the things on the minds of members of the Continental Congress as they met in Philadelphia to debate independence 235 years ago.
“And yet,” writes the historian Pauline Maier, “as the British began to bring the greatest fleet and the largest army ever assembled in North America into action against the Americans, Congress devoted the better part of two days to revising the draft declaration of Independence. Wars, it understood, were not won by ships and sailors and arms alone. Words, too, had power to serve the cause of victory.”
The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate today, wasn’t even an official act of government. The Continental Congress had voted for independence on July 2. The July 4 Declaration, drafted mostly by Thomas Jefferson, was meant as inspiration for the soldiers and to justify and explain a drastic action against the crown to a divided and worried public. To be cynical about it, it was in some ways an early exercise in spin control, especially in its over-the-top excoriation of King George III’s alleged offenses. But in time it became — to use the title of Professor Maier’s 1997 book on the subject — “American Scripture,” with an impact on the national consciousness that far exceeded its revolutionary role.
The reason, of course, lay in the assertion “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. . . .” Those grand sentiments were by no means acceptable to all Americans, especially in the South, where society was both more hierarchical and bound up with the institution of slavery. But they were supported and sustained by many, and as the slavery issue began to tear the country apart, the words of the Declaration became the most powerful statement of the contradiction at the heart of American society.
“The Declaration of Independence set forth a philosophy of human rights that could be applied not only to Americans, but also to peoples everywhere,” writes Gordon S. Wood, a historian of the Revolution. It might even be cited as an example of what’s now called “American exceptionalism,” but it’s good to remember that it didn’t become a reality until well after Abraham Lincoln had restated it in a new scripture delivered over the graves of thousands of Americans whose bodies had covered the field at Gettysburg just a few months before: on the morning of July 4, 1863. Realizing the ideals of the Declaration is not an easy matter of sloganeering. For some it requires sacrifice; for most it demands at least a decent respect for the opinions, rights and essential patriotism of others.
A footnote: We hope that some members of Congress’s new “Tea Party Caucus” can make it down to the fireworks Monday night. It might be a good time to reflect on the primary motivation for the original Boston Tea Party, which was that Americans should not be taxed by a government in which they had no parliamentary representation. That right to a voting representative is still denied to all who live in the nation’s capital, and some of them must be wondering why members of Congress who so revere the Founders haven’t done something about it.