Sunday, July 1, 2012

We hold these truths to be self-evident...


The formal resolution declaring political independence from Great Britain had been submitted to the Continental Congress on June 7th by Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia. It read: “Resolved, 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.”  On Monday, July 1, 1776, Lee’s resolution was debated by Congress. Throughout that day and into the evening the bold supporters of American independence, led by the eloquence of John Adams, a delegate from Massachusetts, argued for severing the colonies’ ties with their mother country, England. The opposition was led by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and was supported primarily by delegates from New York and South Carolina.  Adams carried the day, and on Tuesday, July 2nd the solemn vote was taken in the affirmative.  Acknowledging that the delegates were in fact committing treason against the King of England, Benjamin Franklin remarked: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”[1]  

On the day the Declaration was actually signed by all of the delegates (August 2, 1776), they pondered the gravity of their act. Thirty five years later, Benjamin Rush recounted this fact to John Adams: “… scarcely a word was said of the solicitude and labors and fears and sorrows and sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and subscribed the Declaration of Independence. … Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? . . ."[2] What had finally moved these men to pass this dangerous accord?  In the same letter, Benjamin Rush also asked Adams. “Do you recollect your memorable speech upon the day on which the vote was taken?”  According to Daniel Webster, on the day of the great debate before the vote was taken in Congress, John Adams (who was not known as a great orator), stood and eloquently declared:

Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my heart and hand to this vote.  It is true, indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence.  But there's a Divinity which shapes our ends. . . . Why then should we defer the Declaration? . . . You and I, indeed, may rue it.  We may not live to the time when this Declaration may be made good.  We may die; die colonists, die slaves; die it may be, ignominiously and on the scaffold.  Be it so, be it so.  If it be the pleasure of Heaven that my country shall require the poor offering of my life, the victim shall be ready. . . . But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country.

But whatever may be our fate, be assured . . . that this Declaration will stand.  It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood; but it will stand, and it will richly compensate for both.  Through the thick and gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future, as the sun in heaven.  We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day.   When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires and illuminations.  On its annual return they will shed tears, copious, gushing tears, not of subjection or of slavery, not of agony and distress, but of exultation, of gratitude, of joy.  Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come.  My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration.  It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence, now, and Independence for ever![3]

The delegates passed the resolution.  Late that same night, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail with respect to the events of that day:  “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”[4]  On the morning of July 5th, copies of the Declaration were dispatched by members of Congress to various assemblies, conventions, and committees of safety as well as to the commanders of Continental troops.

On Monday, July 8, 1776, the first public reading of the newly printed Declaration (one of two hundred John Dunlap broadsides) was celebrated and church bells were rung throughout Philadelphia.  At that time, the Liberty Bell hung in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House.  It was commissioned from the London firm of Lester & Pack in 1752, and was cast with an inscription from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto the habitants thereof.”  While there is no contemporary account of the Liberty Bell ringing, most historians believe it was one of the bells rung that day.   On July 9th, General George Washington, who was then stationed in Brooklyn Heights with the Continental Army in preparation for the Battle of New York, had several brigades drawn up at 6:00 p.m. in the evening to hear it read aloud.[5]  Its enduring words still ring familiar and true in our day.

           The Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equalityThe signers of the Declaration pledged to it their “lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.”  Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[6]  The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document.  It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. It is, as Abraham Lincoln wrote, the "apple of gold in the frame of silver..." (Proverbs 25:11).


[1] Ben Franklin Laughing, P. M. Zall, ed., (University of California Press,1980), p. 154.
[2] Letter of Benjamin Rush to John Adams, July 20, 1811 (reflecting on the July 4th celebration that year).
[3] The Works of Daniel Webster, 4th ed. (Boston, 1851), 1:133–36.
[4] John Adams to Abigail Adams, The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, (Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 142.
[5] Malone, et. al. The Story of the Declaration of Independence, p. 82.
[6] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

A beautiful reflection of the deep and abiding meaning of the Declaration in the American soul. After the signing on August 2, Benjamin Rush wrote of the gravity the delegates' actions: "The pensive and awful silence, which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants." I just finished reading historian John Ferling's fine book called "Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free," in which he finishes the book by writing: "Jefferson succeeded in penning a timeless message, an affirmation of human liberty and dignity that has captured the hopes of succeeding generations." The Declaration is, as Ferling writes, "A statement that embodied the national credo and gave an enduring meaning to the American Revolution." Happy Fourth of July everyone!