Virginia Delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution calling for independence from Britain on June 7. The Congress passed another resolution calling for independence on July 2 already. The Declaration was really just a formality, after all a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that you should declare the causes which impel you to separation from your mother country.
John Hancock, as president of Congress was the only delegate to really sign it by the Fourth. Most of them didn’t sign it until August 2. Thomas McKean of Delaware didn’t get around to it until 1781. The first newspaper to print the Declaration was the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, 1776. On July 8th the Declaration had its first public reading in Philadelphia's Independence Square.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration, it was 1,817 words; Congress made 68 changes, killing 480 words- far be it from the patriots to criticize King George for the practice of slavery. Many have called this omission America's "original sin." On the one hand, if we hadn't made that compromise, half of the 13 colonies would not have gone along with Independence, on the other hand we still struggle with inequity and racism to this day.
Why do I love this crazy, uncouth, 231 year old amalgamation of people and cultures from all over the globe, ideas, hopes, dreams? I think it’s because it at least used to be founded on principles drawn from the philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment that promised fairness and honor.
That core second paragraph says it all;
“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…”
In other words, it ought to be obvious that no one is better than anyone else because of where they come from. Every human being on Earth is entitled to certain God-given rights. Since it’s human nature to trample on each other’s rights, we establish a system of laws in order to balance all of our competing interests and make sure that the playing field is evened out for everyone.
What do you do when you loved ones just aren’t themselves? Let’s say someone in your family is acting different, maybe due to mental illness, or someone’s diet has them headed for complications of diabetes or high blood pressure? How about when a friend is in a destructive relationship, or has started abusing drugs or alcohol? Do you hold an intervention? Do you try to talk with them, lovingly yet honestly? Do you confront them? Do you abandon them? The least you can do, which sometimes ends up being the most powerful, is to pray for them.
So here we are, 232 years after dissolving our bonds with England, I wonder if we aren’t more like the old British Empire than we care to admit. Does everybody have to turn into their parents? When I read through the long list of offenses that make up the bulk of the Declaration (that most of us never bother to look at) I wonder how many people around the world could accuse us of.
Secret prisons, secret “courts,” torture, spying on our own citizens, reversing desegregation, a regressive tax structure, staggering trade deficits, and lest we forget, using false intelligence to justify unilateral and preemptive invasions of countries that don’t have weapons of mass destruction and occupying them for years.
With Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
But he provided the solution; “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.”
Here's my own personal paraphrase of the first part of the Declaration:
Sometimes as life goes on, you need to cut off your political connections to a group, and take your place in the world as God and nature intended. When that happens, it’s only fair that you explain why. That’s what the Continental Congress did 230 years ago this week.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that everyone is created equal, and have God given rights, including the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Everyone agrees that the pursuit of happiness is pretty vague and that that one can be interpreted differently by almost everyone.
Life ought to be self explanatory, but of course two centuries later, there are issues of “quality of life,” end-of-life, of course abortion and don’t forget capital punishment.
“Pursuit of happiness” has to be the one that is the most subjective. What if my pursuit impedes yours? What if yours violates my religion?
Government exists to protect our rights, and it’s a trade-off, they exist because we allow them to. We forfeit some of our rights and privileges in order to, preserve and protect others. When the government stops protecting our rights, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,” and fortunately for us, we don’t have to fight a war for Independence every time we need to do this. Instead, every two years we elect new Congressmen, every four years we replace the President, and every six years we decide on new Senators.
We hope that they’ll look out for our safety and happiness. Unfortunately all experience “hath shewn,” that voters will put up with an awful lot before they finally get fed up and tend to prefer the devil we know over the devil we don’t know.
For the sake of unity, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, everyone’s best interests, and to guarantee freedom for us and for future generations, made this a nation of laws, not of men.Last October I had the humbling privilege to narrate a piece of music at our high school's fall concert.
The piece was 'A Jefferson Portrait'* - by Elliot Del Borgo. We practiced for at least a month or more. It was challenging to try to count and listen to the band and watch for the director's cues. It was a fun challenge to read dramatically for fluency and expression, and yet be careful not to be over dramatic so as to respect the dignity of the words.
It was a moving experience for me because I love Jefferson's words so much and they are so important and valuable to us, even more so facing such an important election. Several teachers and parents who were there complimented me and of course that felt good. One parent even said that I should consider working in radio- so I had to try not to let myself get a big head.
But the most meaningful part was when a disabled Vietnam veteran thanked me because he felt like we had a government that had become "destructive of these ends," and needed to be altered or abolished. I knew that he blamed our government for the Agent Orange which had destroyed his life and pursuit of happiness. You can blame both Democrats and Republicans for that war (Johnson first, then Nixon). He went on to say that he feared another revolution was on it's way if things didn't change dramatically in the next few months. I didn't ask if he supported McCain or Obama ("leave a tender moment alone" Billy Joel always used to say). I thanked him for his service to our country and agreed with him that Jefferson's writing meant as much or more to us today as 230 years ago.
Just as pastors have to give credit to God for words form the Bible, I know that it was these words and these ideas that have the power, not my reading or our bands performance (although they did a supurbe job). I know it's October, not July but I hope that people will remember and meditate on the meaning of Jefferson's words before they vote on Tuesday- whether they are liberal, conservative, moderate, or undecided.
*In case you follow the link and listen to 'A Jefferson Portrait,' you should know that this is not a recoding of our performance tonight- just a sample from some music company that I found on the web to halp me practice.
"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;...
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."