Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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On Veteran’s Day, my mom’s parents used to drag her from cemetery to cemetery to introduce her to long-gone relatives who had died in the service of the country.  She hated it.  Hated it so much, in fact, that it was one of the reasons she gave for not wanting to be buried.  Be kind to people when they are alive, was her point of view – once they are dead, they will not hear you.

She seemed to have missed the point.  Of course the dead could not hear her.  But it was not for the dead that the trips were being made, but for the living; for her.  When we remember those who died and sacrificed to create and defend out country, we gain a necessary sense of appreciation for what we have here.

Many millennials were shocked about the recent presidential election, because they had come to believe that their view of social progress was natural and inevitable, not something that people had died for.

Independence Day is my favorite holiday because it has great meaning historically and also psychologically and personally.  This is what I mean:  We all know that “The Founders” came to Philadelphia in 1774 to discuss England’s recent actions against Massachusetts, as resulting from the Boston Tea Party.  There are a couple of things to remember.  First of all, these men were no more born as “Founders” than their slaves who were cruelly removed from Africa were born “slaves.”  For the most part these men had grown up affectionately subservient to Great Britain.  Benjamin Franklin was living in London because he believed it to be the epicenter of human activity.  And he was not adorned by any coonskin cap back then, but printed himself with a proper British powdered wig.

Young George Washington had dreamed of attending college in England and, like his brother Laurence, achieving distinction by fighting on behalf of the British Crown.  His estate at Mount Vernon was named after a British Admiral.  John Adams and his wife Abigail wrote letters to each other sprinkled with allusions to Shakespeare.  When he attended college he was accorded a number which reflected the rank and the social importance of his family.  The greatest and most scintillating evenings of young Thomas Jefferson’s life were the evenings he spent with the Royal Governor in Virginia’s Governor’s Palace.

What happened?  How could a generation born into a loving and respectful relationship with its mother country turn so suddenly and violently revolutionary?

One of the reasons I love Independence Day is that nothing of particular importance happened on July 4th.  No blood was spilt, no victories gained.  Nothing but a change of minds.  We became independent that day, because we decided we were independent.  That’s all.

But in that there is much.  The power behind a decision, made with resolve is the most powerful force in the world.  All things are created twice, wrote Steven Covey, first in somebody mind and then in their acts.  So too was it with independence.  So too was it with the creation of a country based on the ideals of the enlightenment.  This isn’t to say that the decision is the easy part – no, that would be the eight years of war that followed the decision.  The decision, however, is the critical part.

We became independent when we decided we were independent.  Think about that.

And thank John Adams for asking the young and relatively unknown Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to write this document.  Why Jefferson?  Well, if you have Michael Jordan on your team, do you pass to Anthony Carter?  Thomas Jefferson was a man who Adams claimed never to have heard string three sentences together in the congress.  No mind, he knew he could write those sentences well enough.  He had read “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” in which Jefferson argued that although Virginia was tied to the King of England – out of choice, he wanted to know, not law – she was in no way tied to the Parliament.  Jefferson sought to “remind” King George that America’s ancestors had come to their country in the same way the British ones had arrived in England, and that Americans were no more bound to the rulers of their previous residence than were the British.

Thomas Jefferson’s mind and pen were steeped in enlightenment ideals, steeped in the idea that we should follow our intellects and out good sense when it comes to matters of faith, government, and science.  That we do not believe that we are in the center of the universe simply because we would like to think so.

By choosing Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, Adams and his cohorts were making a daring but quite possibly a costly choice.  After all, there were many that believed, as Alexander Hamilton would put it, that England’s government was the most perfect attainable by man.  The argument for independence could be made without arguing also for the natural right of all mankind.  Already the Americans were counting on help from the French.  Why then choose Jefferson, a man with such blatant hostility against monarchy?  Because, Adams told him, (1) he was a Virginian “and a Virginian should be at the head of this matter;” (2) Adams was considered obnoxious by many in congress and Jefferson was very much otherwise; and (3) Jefferson could write ten times better than Adams.

Why Jefferson?  Well, if you want somebody to write your self-defining document, you choose the best writer.  Only Lincoln, among our great statesmen and women, can be compared to Jefferson.

Jefferson was a produce of the Enlightenment.  Growing up in the rarified air of the intellectual elites of Virginia, Jefferson was not averse to spending fifteen hours a day reading his heroes, such as Locke.  He would have said, as did Marley’s Ghost, that mankind was his business.  Jefferson wanted to secure independence not just for Americans, but, ultimately, for mankind.  He sought to free mankind from the choke of monarchical oppression.

But not for his slaves, or for American slaves.  He did not try to end slavery, as some have said, on the document, although he did blame King George for the slave trade and did try to end that.   Of course, by ending the slave trade, he made his own slaves and those of his neighbors in Virginia that much more valuable, as he was choking off all competition.  (Virginia had the most slaves.)

Jefferson and slavery.  His failure to adequately oppose it in either his public or his personal life will always rear its head when discussing the man, and rightfully so.  He failed the country and he failed himself by so willingly (and conveniently) giving in to the politically realities of his time.  Biographers such as Jon Meacham argue that he was simply a pragmatist.  And yet, when it came to the rest of his life, he was anything but.  He was a man who chose to build a mansion on top of a mountain when everybody told him how completely unreasonable the idea was.  His imagination soared far above and beyond those of the great majority of his compatriots, but when it came to the evils of slavery, he became the most conventional of any of them.

So why do we celebrate the man and the document he wrote?

Perhaps the greatest student of the Declaration of Independence was Abraham Lincoln.  And we have all heard the words that begin his most famous address, The Gettysburg Address, about a battle that occurred around July 4th as well:  “Four Score and Seven Years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Strange, isn’t it, since those fore score and seven years bring us back to the Declaration of Independence, which certainly did not create a new nation.  Anything but.  It was quite specific in not doing that, in setting up a system in which each of the thirteen colonies, now states, had their own sovereignty.  And so we are left with the conclusion that either Abraham Lincoln had gone a bit batty, or that he was arguing the position that the Declaration was far more than simply a statement of separation, but that it was the opening salvo of our Constitution and the first explanation and description of our county.

Lincoln makes some interesting comments about the Declaration.  Soon after his first election he had this to say:  “It was not mere matter of separation of the colonies from the motherland, but [of] that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence, which gave liberty not alone to the people of the country, but hope to all the world, for all future time.  It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.  This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”  So here Lincoln makes an important point, that there is much in this Declaration that is not directly on point as to the issue of independence from England; much that goes farther and deeper than that.

We could have ended up looking back on a Declaration as a document for a specific purpose, as we see the Declaration of Causes for Taking Up Arms.  We could see it as a legal argument, as we see The Federalist Papers.  Certainly, we could have seen it as a document overtaken and subsumed by the later Constitution.  But we don’t.  We see it as Lincoln saw it, as the very first articulation of the American experiment, before we had even agreed to become one country.  And yet, continuing to follow the idea that we are one people, and that we can be described with a shared body of values.  Think about it – we might well have said, in some of our colonies, all men are created while in some of our colonies, we have slaves.  The document could have described an errant group of different colonies with individualistic characteristics who came together to fight this just war, much as the Allies would have described themselves during World War II.

To Lincoln, the Civil War was required by the Declaration of Independence.  It created a conflict, from day one, a conflict between what it stated and how we lived, and it was a conflict, Lincoln seemed to believe, that the Founders, including Jefferson, knew that a future generation would have to resolve.  Writing to Joshua Speed, Lincoln said, “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Today we continue to celebrate that work-in-progress that is the Declaration of Independence.  It set the tone and it led the way, and it gave us words that were far more empty of real meaning when he wrote them then they are today.  I tell people that I am a Jeffersonian, which is a very different thing from being a Jefferson-advocate.  The words of the Declaration of Independence, at least many of them, reign supreme, and the tragedy is not that they were written in a way that did not always accord with our actions, but that we did not more quickly alter our actions to be in accord with this document.  Gore Vidal may have put it best:  “He said the right words at the right time, and they were never forgotten.”

Join us at Bow Tie Tours as we discuss the Declaration of Independence.  Take our “Independence Tour Extraordinaire” to see where Jefferson wrote the Declaration and where it was signed.  (Includes tickets to Independence Hall.)  To get to know Thomas Jefferson even better, sign up for our four day Jefferson Package and travel with us to Jefferson’s home and the places that were important to him.

Enjoy your Independence Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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