Declaration of Independence
We are destined for Eternity but in this life we live in Time, which consists of the temporal trinity of past, present and future. The present consists of an often confusing series of disparate events, while the future is a deep mystery to us all. When we recall the past we try to make sense of it all, giving order in our mind and our recollections to what has happened to us individually and collectively.
When we look back at the events leading up to the Declaration of Independence from our vantage point of 234 years in the future, everything seems neat and orderly, an old story that we recall from school, books, television and films. Perhaps to some of us it seems a bit trite and boring. Such was not the way it all appeared to the Founding Fathers. For them it was their present, and a chaotic present it must have seemed. On July 3, 1776 the day before the Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress, a huge British army of some 30,000 men, all regular troops and superbly equipped, began landing on Staten Island. To oppose them, Washington could only gather together an army of 10,000, many of them untrained militia. In the ensuing campaign, Washington’s army would be beaten time and again, often coming close to destruction. The British would seize New York City, holding it until the end of the war in 1783. So it went throughout the Revolution, with the patriots fighting an uphill battle against the mightiest empire since the fall of Rome. At the end of the war, Washington made this observation:
“A contemplation of the compleat attainment (at a period earlier than could have been expected) of the object for which we contended against so formidable a power cannot but inspire us with astonishment and gratitude. The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten. The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle.” Continue reading
Something for the weekend. The Egg song from the musical 1776. Continue reading
I loved these schoolhouse rock videos when they were first broadcast back in the Seventies right before the bicentennial. Among a fair number of kids I knew they sparked an interest in history. Of the videos, I believe No More Kings has the catchiest tune. For a cartoon, The Shot Heard Round the World does a fairly good job of conveying information about the Revolution in a very short span of time: it manages to include the opening battles of the war, Washington as the central figure of the war, the role of the militia, the endurance of the Continentals, the battle of Trenton, Valley Forge, the frequent defeats of the Americans, the importance of diplomacy and foreign intervention, and the decisive victory at Yorktown. Fireworks is a nice opening view of the Declaration for kids. If readers have kids, or if, like me, part of them has never really grown up, watching these cartoons can be a good way to get into the Fourth of July spirit !
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day from the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Jefferson died before Adams, and therefore Adams was in error when, with his last breath, he said “Thomas Jefferson survives.” However, in a larger sense, a part of Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Adams and all the patriots who brought us our independence, will remain alive as long as Americans continue to read and remember the Declaration of Independence.
On February 2, 1861, on his way to Washington, Abraham Lincoln stopped at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. There he made a few remarks on the Declaration:
I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country. I can say in return, Sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.
Something for the weekend. Cool Considerate Men from the musical 1776. I have always loved the musical 1776, although I recognize that the actual history and what is depicted in the musical often part company. Perhaps the greatest divergence is in the case of John Dickinson, a member of Congress from Pennsylvania, who is represented in the play as an arch reactionary and Tory. Dickinson, as the play rightly indicates at the end, enlisted to fight in the Revolution, and had the odd military career of serving first as a militia Brigadier General and then as a militia Private. During the War he also served as President (Governor) of Delaware and as President (Governor) of Pennsylvania. After the War he served as a delegate from Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, and supported the ratification with a series of articles written under the pen name Fabius.
Dickinson mainly opposed an immediate declaration of independence in 1776 because he wished the Articles of Confederation, which he had largely drafted, to be first sent to the 13 colonies and ratified by them, and for the colonies to obtain a powerful foreign ally before such a declaration was made to the World. Dickinson was a firm patriot willing to risk his own skin in the War, so his opposition to the Declaration of Independence did no long term damage to his reputation during his life.
On July 1, he made a speech against immediate independence. The debate was apparently fierce while he spoke, and thus the speech has a fragmentary quality: Continue reading
[N]o one in the world who prizes liberty and human rights can feel anything but a strong kinship with America. Yours is the one great nation in all of history that was founded on the precept of equal rights and respect for all humankind, for the poorest and weakest of us as well as the richest and strongest.
As your Declaration of Independence put it, in words that have never lost their power to stir the heart: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” A nation founded on these principles holds a sacred trust: to stand as an example to the rest of the world, to climb ever higher in its practical realization of the ideals of human dignity, brotherhood, and mutual respect. Your constant efforts in fulfillment of that mission, far more that your size or your wealth or your military might, have made America an inspiration to all mankind.
It must be recognized that your model was never one of realized perfection, but of ceaseless aspiration. From the outset, for example, America denied the African slave his freedom and human dignity. But in time you righted that wrong, albeit at an incalculable cost in human suffering and loss of life.
Your impetus has almost always been toward a fuller, more all embracing conception and assurance of the rights that your founding fathers recognized as inherent and God-given.
Yours has ever been an inclusive, not an exclusive, society. And your steps, though they may have paused or faltered now and then, have been pointed in the right direction and have trod the right path. The task has not always been an easy one, and each new generation has faced its own challenges and temptations. But in a uniquely courageous and inspiring way, America has
Yet there has been one infinitely tragic and destructive departure from those American ideals in recent memory. Continue reading
Something for a Fourth of July weekend. A musical tribute to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Here is a list of the Signers by State with short bios. The last survivor of the Signers was Charles Carroll of Carrollton from Maryland who died at 95 on November 14, 1832. Carroll also had the distinction of being the sole Catholic Signer of the Declaration and one of two Catholic Signers of the Constitution. If he had lived four more years he would have been the last surviving Signer of the Constitution also. That honor fell to James Madison, who died on June 28, 1836 at 85, the last of the Founding Fathers to die.
Part of my ongoing effort to have people read the Declaration on the Fourth. This video demonstrates two things. First, that even Hollywood can’t foul up the Declaration when Mr. Jefferson’s words are allowed to speak for themselves. Second, that the Declaration is very much a speech, and is best understood when read aloud. In the ealier days of our Republic, a public reading of the Declaration was usually a part of the festivities on the Fourth. It is a tradition that I wish we would return to.
My friend & colleague Donald McClarey has proposed that we celebrate the 4th of July with a reading of the Declaration of Independence — a custom I also share, and which I think every citizen of the United States should cultivate.
And to those scornful cranks so quick to dismiss such an appreciation of the principles of our founding as “worshipping at the temple of Enlightenment liberalism,” I would remind them of the example set by none other than Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II:
In my family each year we have a group reading of the Declaration of Independence. The kids enjoy it and so do Mom and Dad. Each year I am struck by a timeless quality of the 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, — 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.”