The Virginian-Pilot like many newspapers printed the Declaration of Independence today. I’d love to know how many readers actually take the time to read or better yet re-read this unique document. Unfortunately, I suspect that many people don’t take the time. I also suspect that most people ascribe statements to the Declaration that are not contained therein, or if they do quote from it they only remember something about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Perhaps it would be useful for newspapers to take a section each day between Flag Day (June 14) and Independence Day and explain the Declaration in detail and put it in the context of the latter half of the eighteenth century. The bulk of the document, of course, addresses the grievances the colonies had with King George III of England. Some of the actions to which the Founding Fathers objected were perhaps not as unreasonable as those whose study of history was limited to those mandated by the school board. Great Britain had spent considerable amounts of blood and treasure in defending the colonists against the French and the Indians. This “Seven Years War” was a global conflict and the North American portion of it (what we call the “French and Indian War”) actually ran longer. To the crown it seemed reasonable that the colonists should pay a fair share of the costs of Great Britain had incurred for their defense. The colonies were, after all, attractive because of the richness of resources and opportunities.
Unfortunately the matter was not handled in the most diplomatic of manners by the British, and the relations continued to devolve. Independence was not a universally popular choice with many remaining loyal to the monarchy and others hoping for a reconciliation between the crown and the colonists. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, a member of the Continental Congress was a moderate and didn’t believe that the colonies had the military (or economic) capacity to win. He warned that if the Declaration was approved the colonies would “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” He abstained from voting on or signing the Declaration but did serve in the Continental Army and went on to have influence on the early nation, including being a supporter and a signatory to the US Constitution.
We’re so used to seeing the Founding Fathers in a certain light of invincibility and omniscience that we ignore the real meaning of the last line of the Declaration;
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Many patriots had their property burned or seized (including, incidentally, property owned by John Dickinson.) If the revolution had been lost, George Washington certainly would have been taken to London in chains and drawn and quartered – a particularly gruesome form of execution imposed on traitors. The risk to these men and their families was far more real and significant than we realize.
I do have to comment on one particular complaint levied against the king in the Declaration;
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
I guess we still haven’t figured that one out.
There is one other aspect of the Declaration that strikes me. There was great news coverage when people were informed that the Declaration had been adopted; I’m sure there was some coverage of the workings of the Continental Congress, but nothing like we see today. The emphasis was on the final product, not the political infighting and posturing that always occurs in such situations. It was that results that counted.
In today’s sound bite 24 hour news world the changing of “inalienable rights” as written by Thomas Jefferson to “unalienable rights” by the printer possibly with influence by John Adams would be “breaking news” and spawn a myriad of conspiracy theories.
However, the bottom line is that the Declaration was the first step on a journey. We Americans continue that journey today. Let us take time to honor the work of those who started the process and pledge our Lives, Fortunes and our sacred Honor to continue the process in a manner in which we and they would all be proud.