On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia voted to declare the 13 American colonies independent from Great Britain. This was a bold and controversial decision, even for a group of revolutionaries that had been at war for a year. At the time, a sizable segment of colonists held out hope for reconciliation with the Crown, and a return to British rule with greater colonial autonomy. Declaring independence meant not only the prospect of a long war, but of a life without political and economic support from the British Empire if they won.
The Continental Congress announced this new Declaration of Independence on July 4, and most members signed the document on August 2. John Adams wrote his wife Abigail that “the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” He was only off by two days.
While the importance of independence and the tragic fate that befell so many of the Declaration’s signatories have made their mark on American history, it is the strength of Thomas Jefferson’s words that have truly changed the world. While it was conceived as a formal notice to King George of the grievances that led to separation from the Crown, Jefferson’s poetic preamble turned the Declaration into one of the most powerful statements of human rights ever printed. I would summarize its meaning, but Jefferson stated the inherent justice of self-government more succinctly than I ever could:
“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.”
Jefferson’s ideals have spread over the past 233 years. The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are shared far beyond our borders. The people of Iran are fighting for those rights today. The people of North Korea are still trapped in darkness.
I hope the sun comes out long enough this weekend to use the grill. I’m taking the family to Fenway on Sunday. So I’m going to enjoy this Fourth of July. But I’m going to celebrate Independence Day.