Op-Ed Column Program
An Important Day
by Tim O'Brien
July 3, 2001
As we celebrate our country's 225th birthday with pomp and circumstance, parades and picnics and fireworks, it's worth taking at least a few moments to reflect on some of the facts (and misconceptions) surrounding our nation's birth announcement, the Declaration of Independence.
Let's start right out with the date. The final document was actually adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. John Adams -- a signer who would later become our second president -- even wrote a letter to his wife Abigail predicting that July 2 would be celebrated by generations to come as the most important date in our history. He was right about the future festivities, but slightly off on the date.
Not that the exact date would have been regarded back then as especially important anyway. Most Americans of that era regarded the Declaration as little more than a formal recognition of a state of affairs already extant for some time.
Among other things, colonists had expressed their opinion of parliament's 3-cents-per-pound tea tax back in the fall of 1773 by tossing three shiploads full into Boston harbor. The first exchange of gun fire between American militia and British regulars -- over a "gun control" measure, incidentally -- happened more than a year before the Declaration in the spring of 1775 in a couple of little towns north of Boston. George Washington's appointment as commander of American military forces had also been made more than a year earlier.
Despite the concurrence of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who in later years agreed on little else) that the document was ceremoniously signed on July 2nd by the members of the continental congress, historians today believe that their recollections were, perhaps, a bit more nostalgic than accurate. It is more likely that only the president, John Hancock, and the secretary, Charles Thomson, signed that day. It is well established that the final signature, Thomas McKean, was not affixed until several years later.
Although the Declaration itself was officially drafted by a committee of five, the actual language came mostly from the pen of Thomas Jefferson.
The document consists of three parts.
The prologue, the most famous portion and, arguably, one of the most profound statements of political philosophy in history, is a distillation of nearly a century of natural rights theory that had grown out of the Enlightenment from such then highly regarded philosopher/writers as John Locke and Algernon Sidney.
The ideas expressed were actually ubiquitous and uncontroversial throughout the colonies, having been refined and popularized notably by Jefferson's fellow Virginians George Mason and Richard Henry Lee (the latter being the delegate who actually offered the original resolution in the continental congress).
The second section of the Declaration consists of a recitation of 27 reasons why Americans felt compelled to separate from England.
It is this section that contains the only substantive change made by the continental congress to Jefferson's draft. The body shortened his original list of 28 grievances against the crown by one in striking in its entirety:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold..."
Contrary to contemporary misconception, Jefferson was well aware of the incongruity that the sanction of slavery represented in the otherwise noble principles embodied in the American cause. The passage was removed by the congress as a purely political concession in order to form a "United" States of America. The undeniable reality was that it would have been otherwise impossible to get several of the southern states to join.
In the final section the delegates declare "That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be Free and Independent States" and "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
As has often been observed, it is the winners who write history. So, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were destined to become "Founding Fathers." But two and a quarter centuries later, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that at the time they were traitors.
That fact was plain enough to them. It led Benjamin Franklin to respond to John Hancock's observation that to be successful they would need to hang together: "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
But if these events culminated on July 2, 1776, how is it that we have come to celebrate the 4th of July?
The reason is simply that July 4th was the date the document was actually published (or, as they put it, "submitted to a candid World.")
Of course, in the 18th century news travelled pretty slowly -- taking two months or better to finally make it all the way across the ocean to europe.
And in one of history's most exquisite ironies, King George III's diary entry for July 4, 1776 simply reads: "Nothing of importance happened today."
Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.