Declaration of Independence

Our Declaration

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the RINGBOLT to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain, broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day-cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.

Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852

An interesting video on the preservation of the Declaration.  I rather like that it is faded and worn.  The Declaration has not been hidden away as some sort of sacred totem.  Instead it is a document to be seen by all Americans, which is fitting because it is their Declaration. Continue reading

The Declaration of Independence

 

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, 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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. Continue reading

The Declaration of Independence: Read It!

In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.

Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926

Each year after lunch on the Fourth, clan McClarey gathers together to read out loud The Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration is not a mere historical artifact, some sort of feel good document that we salute as a patriotic symbol, and then promptly dismiss.  It is filled with ideas, some of the most truly revolutionary ideas that have ever been proclaimed on this planet, and they still remain so 237 years later.  So blow the dust off it, read it, think about it, argue about it.  That is the best way for all Americans to truly observe Independence Day. Continue reading

Coolidge on the Declaration

We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, the only President to be born on the Fourth of July.  It is therefore fitting that he gave one of the more eloquent speeches ever given on the Declaration.  This was on the 150th anniverary of the Declaration on July 5, 1926.  Coolidge was one of the last presidents to write his own speeches, so this is pure Coolidge.  In reviewing this very thoughtful speech I can see why this nation became great and why we are going through a spirtual depression now to match our economic depression.  Time, past time, to end both.  Here is the text of Coolidge’s speech:

We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that it has been an infinite repetition reaching back beyond our vision, that only makes it the more wonderful. But how our interest and wonder increase when we behold the miracle of the birth of a new nation. It is to pay our tribute of reverence and respect to those who participated in such a mighty event that we annually observe the fourth day of July. Whatever may have been the impression created by the news which went out from this city on that summer day in 1776, there can be no doubt as to the estimate which is now placed upon it. At the end of 150 years the four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine in grateful acknowledgement of a service so great, which a few inspired men here rendered to humanity, that it is still the preeminent support of free government throughout the world. Continue reading

PC Declaration of Independence

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Calvin Coolidge

 

Walter Russell Meade at his blog Via Media which I read each day, gives us an updated version of the Declaration of Independence:

The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen Post-Colonial, Multi-Racial Societes of North America

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to strengthen the political bands which have connected them with the Global Community, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the cooperative and deferential station which a careful review of the relevant peer reviewed literature suggests is most appropriate for long term win-win outcomes, a decent and rigorously equal respect to the opinions of woman- and man- and transkind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the ever deeper union. Continue reading

Fortnight For Freedom Fourth of July: Catholicism and the Declaration of Independence

 

 

 

Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:

On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S.  Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First,  Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.

 

Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to  highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic  institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation  with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to  defend our most cherished freedom.

 

The fourteen days from June  21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to  July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for  freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face  of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More,  St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the  Church of Rome.  Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our  Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that  would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for  religious liberty.

 

We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day.  This is the final of these blog posts and is written by commenter Greg Mockeridge.

 

 

John Adams foresaw the all pomp with which we celebrate the 4th of July, but the date he gave for that was not the 4th but the 2nd. The reason he gave the 2nd was that independence was voted on and decided by the Continental Congress on the 2nd. What took place on the 4th was that final draft of the Declaration of Independence, after about a hundred revisions to Thomas Jefferson’s original draft, was approved.

 

It is actually more fitting that we celebrate independence on 4th as opposed to the 2nd because it isn’t merely independence we celebrate, but the ideas, principles, and truths this country was founded on. Fidelity to these very ideas really enable Americans to be Patriots as opposed to merely Nationalists. Just as one cannot be a good Catholic without a concerted effort to know and understand what it is he gives his assent of faith to, one cannot be a true American Patriot unless he likewise makes an effort to understand our heritage as Americans. No other U.S. founding document expresses these truths better than the Declaration of Independence. If more Americans became better acquainted with the Declaration, there would not be so much confusion regarding the Constitution.

 

Our Catholic faith not only does not relieve us of this patriotic duty, it actually reinforces it. An 1884 statement of the American bishops said it this way:

 

 

Teach your children to take a special interest in the history of our country. We consider the and laws as a work of special Providence, its framers “building wiser than they knew,” the Almighty’s hand guiding them….As we establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties desire therefore that the history of the United States should be carefully taught in all our Catholic schools, and have directed that it should be specially dwelt upon in the education of the young ecclesiastical students in our preparatory seminaries; so also we desire that it form a favorite part of the home library and home reading.

A document from the Second Vatican Council “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” better known by its Latin title Gaudium et Spes says: “Citizens should cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism… “(#75) Continue reading

Accent on Liberty

This video is a lot of fun, especially when one considers the strong regional accents in which the Declaration was read up and down America in July of 1776.  However it sounds when being read, the meaning of the Declaration was clear then and today.

Fortnight For Freedom Day Six: Freedom is not a “Worship Word”

 

Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:

On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S.  Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First,  Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.

 

Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to  highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic  institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation  with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to  defend our most cherished freedom.

 

The fourteen days from June  21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to  July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for  freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face  of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More,  St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the  Church of Rome.  Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our  Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that  would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for  religious liberty.

 

We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day.  This is the sixth of these blog posts.

Long time readers of this blog will not be surprised to see that I have managed to work a Star Trek episode into one of the Fortnight For Freedom posts!

One of the “alternate Earth” episodes that became fairly common as the original Star Trek series proceeded, as explained by Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development, and stringent episode budgets,  the Omega Glory episode in the video clip at the beginning of this post featured an Earth where a cataclysmic war had driven the Americans, the Yangs, out of their cities and into primitive warbands.  Chinese Communists, the Kohms, settled in America.  Their technology was a few steps higher than the Yangs.  The Yangs had been waging a war for generations to drive the Kohms from their land, and the episode coincided with the Yangs taking the last of “the Kohm places”.

Over the generations, the Yangs had forgotten almost all of their history and what little knowledge remained was restricted to priests and chieftains.

“Cloud William: Freedom?

James T. Kirk: Spock.

Spock: Yes, I heard, Captain.

Cloud William: It is a worship word, Yang worship. You will not speak it.

James T. Kirk: Well, well, well. It is… our worship word, too. Continue reading

Fortnight For Freedom Day Five: Why Celebrate the Fourth?

 

 

 

 

Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:

On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S.  Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First,  Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.

 

Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to  highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic  institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation  with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to  defend our most cherished freedom.

 

The fourteen days from June  21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to  July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for  freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face  of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More,  St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the  Church of Rome.  Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our  Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that  would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for  religious liberty.

 

We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day.  This is the fifth of these blog posts.

Why do we observe Independence Day on the Fourth of July each year?  Is it merely a historical commemoration, or is it because the lightning words of the Declaration of Independence still have meaning and relevance today?  This is not a new issue.  In the debate over slavery which embroiled this nation a century and a half ago, the phrase “all men are created equal” from the Declaration was argued and fought over.  On June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln, in response to the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, contended in a speech in Springfield, Illinois, that the phrase “all men are created equal” applied to blacks as well as whites:

Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.

I have now briefly expressed my view of the meaning and objects of that part of the Declaration of Independence which declares that “all men are created equal.”

Now let us hear Judge Douglas’ view of the same subject, as I find it in the printed report of his late speech. Here it is:

“No man can vindicate the character, motives and conduct of the signers of the Declaration of Independence except upon the hypothesis that they referred to the white race alone, and not to the African, when they declared all men to have been created equal—that they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain—that they were entitled to the same inalienable rights, and among them were enumerated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country.”

My good friends, read that carefully over some leisure hour, and ponder well upon it—see what a mere wreck—mangled ruin—it makes of our once glorious Declaration. Continue reading

The Pre-history of the Declaration of Independence

A guest post from Almost Chosen People commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri.

To be honest, this post ought to be made on July 4; but if I waited that long, I would probably have forgotten all about it by then. I have repeatedly said that I regard the Declaration of Independence as just one step below the Sacred Scriptures, and its central statement – “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain [and] inalienable rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” – as words to live and die by.
However, while these words last for ever, there is a danger that the rest of the sentiments of the Declaration – a work very much of its time, after all, intended to bring about action and change then and there – can be misunderstood when not only the circumstances, not even the laws, but the very meaning of words have changed. The danger, in particular, is that our ignorance of the meaning of facts, laws and terms of language in the eighteenth century should give King George more credit than he deserves, and make the Founders, in spite of the nobility of their ideals, sound rather more sophistical in their political arguments than they actually were. In point of fact, once things are understood in their own contemporary colours, it will be seen that the case of Jefferson and Congress was literally unanswerable, because it was based on established law.
First and foremost, the meaning of the word colony has changed in the last two hundred years. To us, a colony is a distant territory ruled and administered from a distance, for whose governance it is the mother country – or colonial overlord – that is responsible. But that is by no means what a colony was in Jefferson’s time. In effect, imperial oversight and direct rule only became the norm after the shock of the great Indian war of 1858. The British government concluded, rightly or wrongly, that it had been caused by the maladministration of the East India Company, the private body that ruled India; and decided, even more arguably, that the answer was to dispossess the Company altogether and make the governance of India its own direct responsibility. This is in general the default reaction of the London government down the century to any crisis – take control from Westminster. But that the enormous Indian colony, much larger than the Thirteen Colonies had ever been, could have been administered until 1858 by a private corporation ought to show that direct control from the central government was, to say the least, not the universal rule of colonial governance.
In actual fact, the law and legal precedent under which the American colonies organized themselves has a surprisingly long prehistory. It begins with the huge legal difficulties experienced through the middle ages by the merchants who came from the Christian West to trade with the Muslim powers of Mediterranean Asia and Africa. To trade was indispensable to both parties, but neither would allow its citizens to be under the power of the other. A practice evolved – independently, to the best of my knowledge, from the temporary formation of crusader kingdoms that imported Western feudal law to Palestine, Syria and Anatolia – whereby Western merchants, mostly Italian, would settle closely together in single areas of Eastern harbour and trading cities, often a single street separated from the rest. These quarters were legally treated like independent Italian city states – their chief magistrates being called Consuls – even when they only amounted to a few families living in a Muslim and Eastern Christian sea of people. They were responsible for their own administration and justice, in so far as it didn’t clash with the larger government. At the same time they were regarded as colonies of the European mother countries from which the merchants came. I am not quite clear how this link worked in practice, but an offence made against a colony in Aleppo or Gaza would be felt as an act of war against the mother country. The largest number of these merchant settlements were Italian, but there were also quite a few from France, Aragon, and so on, and the principles on which they were based were universally understood in Europe. Continue reading

The Declaration of Independence as Law

Debates sometimes arise as to whether the Declaration of Independence is law. The Declaration isn’t law as a law saying go on green and stop on red is, although it is set forth under the United States Code.  It is much more important than that.  It is one of the essential building blocks of what we as a people believe.  It has been held to be such in numerous decisions of the United States Supreme Court and I cite one of them below: Continue reading

Were the Founders Hypocrites?

In the 19th century it became fashionable among pro-slavery advocates to deride the idea that the Declaration of Independence’s ringing assertion that “All men are created equal” applied to blacks.

In the Dred Scott decision the majority of the Supreme Court stated that it was a simple historical fact that blacks were not included:

The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration, for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted, and instead of the sympathy of mankind to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation.

Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary acquirements, high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others, and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, and no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.

Interestingly enough, John C. Calhoun, statesman and chief political theorist in defense of slavery, disagreed with this line of pro-slavery argument.  While lamenting the inclusion of the “All men are created equal” phrase in the Declaration, he had no doubt that it was intended to apply to blacks:

They have been made vastly more so by the dangerous error I have attempted to expose, that all men are born free and equal, as if those high qualities belonged to man without effort to acquire them, and to all equally alike, regardless of their intellectual and moral condition. The attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error, and to bestow on all, without regard to their fitness either to acquire or maintain liberty, that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man in the hypothetical and misnamed state of nature, has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined. While it is powerful to pull down governments, it is still more powerful to prevent their construction on proper principles. It is the leading cause among those…which have been overthrown, threatening thereby the quarter of the globe most advanced in progress and civilization with hopeless anarchy, to be followed by military despotism. Nor are we exempt from its disorganizing effects. We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of our independence. For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits. It had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson, the author of that document, which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the former, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the latter; and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral. To this error, his proposition to exclude slavery from the territory northwest of the Ohio may be traced, and to that of the ordinance of ’87, and through it the deep and dangerous agitation which now threatens to ingulf, and will certainly ingulf, if not speedily settled, our political institutions, and involve the country in countless woes.

Abraham Lincoln rose in defense of the Founders and the Declaration.  Lincoln has attained such a folksy image in American folklore that we lose sight of how incisive a mind he possessed.  It was on full display in this passage from a speech that he gave on June 26, 1857 on the Dred Scott decision: Continue reading

Was the Declaration of Independence Legal?

American and British lawyers squared off recently in a discussion over whether the Declaration of Independence was legal. The BBC reports as follows:

On Tuesday night, while Republican candidates in Nevada were debating such American issues as nuclear waste disposal and the immigration status of Mitt Romney’s gardener, American and British lawyers in Philadelphia were taking on a far more fundamental topic.

Namely, just what did Thomas Jefferson think he was doing?

Some background: during the hot and sweltering summer of 1776, members of the second Continental Congress travelled to Philadelphia to discuss their frustration with royal rule.

By 4 July, America’s founding fathers approved a simple document penned by Jefferson that enumerated their grievances and announced themselves a sovereign nation.

Called the Declaration of Independence, it was a blow for freedom, a call to war, and the founding of a new empire.

It was also totally illegitimate and illegal.

At least, that was what lawyers from the UK argued during a debate at Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Hall.

(The rest of the article can be read here.)

It strikes me that this misses a crucial distinction: The Declaration was essentially an announcement that if certain demands were not met, the colonists would fight a war for their independence. Such things are not intended to be legal. No sane country is going to provide legal basis for its sub-regions to secede at will — and as the British lawyers point out further on in the article, the US certainly didn’t give it’s Southern half that right under Lincoln. Instead, the colonists were making a last ditch appeal and (more realistically) an appeal for public and international sympathy as they prepared to fight a war of independence. If the British had won, the signers would probably have been hung as traitors. Given that they won, they are considered to be founders of the republic.

Rather than trying to put forward some theory under which the document was legal within the context of the British Empire, it seems to me that the correct answer is that the Declaration was legal by right of conquest — an aged yet still apt concept. This also, of course, answers the question of the why the South was not allowed to secede: Because they lost the Civil War.

July 2, 1776: The Vote

From the musical 1776, a heavily dramatized version of the vote to declare American independence on July 2, 1776.  The scene is effective but historically false.   James Wilson did not dither about his vote, but was a firm vote for independence, having ascertained that his Pennsylvania constituents were in favor of independence.  There was no conflict over slavery, Jefferson and Adams having already agreed to remove from the Declaration the attack on the King for promoting the slave trade.  Caesar Rodney did make a dramatic ride to Congress of 80 miles in order to break a deadlock in the Delaware delegation over independence, but he was not dying and would live until June 26, 1784, witnessing the triumph of America in the Revolutionary War. Continue reading

Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence

In a speech given on August 17, 1858 in Lewistown, Illinois, in the midst of the Stephen-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln celebrated the Declaration as a beacon of freedom:

The Declaration of Independence was formed by the representatives of American liberty from thirteen States of the confederacy—twelve of which were slaveholding communities. We need not discuss the way or the reason of their becoming slaveholding communities. It is sufficient for our purpose that all of them greatly deplored the evil and that they placed a provision in the Constitution which they supposed would gradually remove the disease by cutting off its source. This was the abolition of the slave trade. So general was conviction—the public determination—to abolish the African slave trade, that the provision which I have referred to as being placed in the Constitution, declared that it should not be abolished prior to the year 1808. A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress, from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war.

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “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.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. Continue reading

Preserving the Declaration

A fascinating little video on preserving the Declaration of Independence. 

It is of course very important that the physical document be preserved.  However, it is much more important that the spirit of the document be preserved.  On the Fourth of July we do not merely engage in ancestor worship.  The principles of the American Revolution, immortally set forth in the Declaration, are just as important today as they were then, and almost as controversial. 

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.

1.  God given rights.

2.  Government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

3.  A right of revolution when Government becomes destructive of God given unalienable rights. Continue reading

Happy Independence Day! (A Roundup)

Happy Independence Day, folks! — Here is a roundup of some choice reads as we commemorate the birth of our nation:

Following are two books which I heartily recommend for some engaging historical reading of the American Revolution and our founding fathers. Continue reading

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