The words contained in the Declaration of Independence were some of the most revolutionary and radical ideas ever printed when the document was published in 1776. More importantly, they have been some of the most influential words in the history of the world and have helped to shape many nations.
To fully appreciate the visionary nature of the words, we must remember the world in which the men lived who drafted the resolution. Theirs was a world of kings and nobility, peasants and tradesmen, a time when all people had a designated place in society, and they knew what it was.
The farm hand was beneath the farmer who was a rung below the local squire who served the baron who answered to someone of noble rank. These men did not feel they were equal to the man above their station and, although some resented their status and desired for more, most accepted their position in society.
When Thomas Jefferson drafted and Congress approved the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, they were going where no government had gone before.
Think of how those words, “all men are created equal”, must have sounded to a people used to treating those above their rank with complete deference and the King as if he were divine. To be told and believe that you, a commoner, were the equal of the highest in the land was a truly profound concept.
The preamble also declared that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Think of the radical nature of that statement given the lay of the land in 1776 when hereditary monarchies ruled all the nations of the earth. Rulers did not obtain their position and power from those they governed, but rather by their birth.
These visionary thoughts were not just restricted to the Continental Congress delegates. They were spreading throughout the colonies. George Mason, a Virginian like Jefferson, had penned similar thoughts when he drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights earlier in 1776.
This document which greatly influenced Jefferson’s work was truly the first work in America to proclaim the basic rights of men and declare that government existed to serve the interests of the people.
In addition to the famous preamble, the Declaration of Independence also listed 27 grievances the King had committed against his subjects in America.
While not as well-known as the preamble, this was an important part of the document as it laid out the case against King George and the justification for our separation from the mother country.
These complaints ranged from “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly” to “He has made Judges dependent on his will” to “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures”.
Taken together, they made a compelling case for our dissolution from the British Empire.
Ultimately, the American colonists in 1776 were left with two choices. They could either completely submit to the authority of Parliament and the Crown becoming vassals of the state, or declare complete independence and, thereby, control their own destiny. Time has shown that they chose wisely.
SUGGESTED READING Garry Wills book, “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence” written in 1978 compares Jefferson’s original draft with the final version approved by Congress and challenges long held beliefs regarding Jefferson’s goals and influences in writing our Declaration.
PLACES TO VISIT When in DC, you should take a stroll on the Tidal Basin, located near the Washington Monument. In addition to the beautiful cherry trees, you will find the wellknown Jefferson Memorial and the lesser known George Mason Memorial.
Mason’s site is especially great if you want a bit of peace and quiet from DC.
WHY IT MATTERS So why do the words of our Declaration of Independence matter to us today? One could fill volumes answering this question. Suffice it to say, these words revolutionized the way not only Americans but also the rest of the world viewed the role of government and the very concept of where the right to govern originates. Moreover, they were the strongest possible statement about the rights of the individual members of a nation. The very essence of a modern free society flows from this document. That is worth remembering.
Next time, we will discuss the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to our Constitution.
Until then, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand lives on Ford Plantation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.