JN Fenwick, author and former American History teacher
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The culmination of months of debate and revisions, formal adoption of the document was the official beginning of America’s fight for independence from Great Britain.
Prior to this date, independence had been thought a radical idea and was slow in gaining support. However, as King George IIII began enlarging British troops in the colonies and the British Parliament began increasing taxes and levying stiffer penalties on colonial exports, the momentum for complete independence grew into revolution.
We all know the story of our county’s beginnings. At least I hope we do. We know that Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration and that John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were also on the committee tasked with drafting it.
We are familiar with the words, “We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] self-evident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The ideal of full human equality has been a major legacy and ongoing challenge of the Declaration. But, as with all historical figures, events, and documents, it must be taken in the context of the times in which it was written to be fully understood.
In the case of the Declaration and the context in which it was drafted, these words are specific to the right of the colonies to throw off the mantle of British control and to form their own government free from British influence. Chief among the complaints leading up to revolution was the lack of colonial representation in parliamentary decisions affecting the colonies, including but not limited to “taxation without representation.”
The signers of the document in 1776 were focused on colonial independence, and although the possibility for sweeping social changes was certainly discussed, the passage of the document was the foremost goal. Without its acceptance, the likelihood of garnering needed support from within the colonies as well as foreign aid in the ensuing conflict would have been greatly diminished.
Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their fellow Founding Fathers, understood the necessity for compromise. Yet, as a researcher and educator of American History, I firmly believe they also understood the prophetic, transformational, and lasting importance of the language they chose to use.
These men understood that they were not simply writing a document for their lifetimes. They were authoring a document that would serve as the foundation for the successful building of a new nation. One that would progress with the ages and allow America to become the safe haven for freedom and human rights they envisioned it could be.
And they were correct in their goals.
Since it’s adoption, the Declaration’s most famous sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” has become the foundation of our nation’s profound commitment to human equality. The idea has served as the basis for many movements that have transformed our nation, bringing us ever closer to that ideal.
In 1848, early women’s rights activists in Seneca Falls modeled their Declaration of Sentiments after the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they said, “that all men and women are created equal.” Similarly, in 1829, African-American anti-slavery activists challenged white Americans to “See your Declaration!!!”
It’s not surprising that Abraham Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address by referencing the founding of the United States. “Fourscore and seven years ago our founding fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” was not a reference to the U. S. Constitution, but rather to the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln understood that the Civil War had shifted from a fight to preserve the Union, to a fight to “bring forth a new birth of freedom for all.”
In 1963, almost 100 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his most famous speech, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
King understood that the legacy of the Declaration, rather than the reality in which it was written, a reality under which his people had suffered, was the true ideal. To him, the Declaration was a looking glass that exposed the past, but that also served as a conduit for true and lasting change.
“The issues in the Declaration are not merely American, but rather universal, and that is precisely what makes the United States exceptional. Not its reality at any given time, which may be worse or better than that of other states. The United States, rather, is exceptional in the universality of its argument, the ideals that inspire and shame succeeding generations, and that offer the characteristically American promise of improvement, change, growth, and hope for the future.”Eliot A. Cohen | The Atlantic | July 4, 2019
America won its fight for independence and the Declaration of Independence earned its place in American History. Over the course of the 240 years since its signing, the Declaration has served as one of the most important founding documents in our history.