There are two defining documents for America – the Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution, and although they share the same ideals, they might be seen as very different yet complementary to one another.
The Declaration of Independence is not tied exclusively to the 4th of July. Naturally, the Continental Congress worked to develop the idea over a long period of time. The idea of independence was not only revolutionary, it was treasonous, and the penalty for treason against the British crown was especially gruesome. In spite of the possible consequences, the Congress actually voted to declare independence on the 2nd of July.
John Adams wrote his wife Abigail, saying “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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
The written declaration was ratified on the 4th of July, which is why it bears that date. The document was not signed by all members of the Continental Congress, John Trumbull’s famous painting notwithstanding. It was actually signed over the next few months, although the exact dates are unknown. Some who signed it were not yet members of the Congress when it voted for independence.
The principal author of the Declaration was Thomas Jefferson, who left explicit instructions as to the epitaph on his tombstone;”…on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia
“because by these,” he explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
Jefferson, a lawyer wrote the Declaration as the legal justification for America to declare itself no longer subject to the British Crown. Most of the document lists the grievances the 13 colonies had with King George III. In fact, most of the paragraphs begin with the words, “He has…” and then describes a particular issue with which the colonies disagreed.
Once free of English rule, something had to be written to establish the new entity, and the first attempt at doing this was through the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” created in 1777 but not ratified until 1781. These did not adequately bind the 13 states together nor did the articles provide for an adequate government, so work began on the Constitution we live under today.
James Madison is credited as being the “Father of the Constitution” having played a role similar to Jefferson’s with the Declaration. Congress (of the Articles of Confederation) called a convention for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” on February 21, 1787. The Constitutional Convention adopted the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and it went into effect on March 4, 1789.
The differences between the Declaration and the Constitution are interesting. The Declaration begins with the words “In Congress” while the Constitution begins with “We the People.” The Declaration was written primarily for the rest of the world, while the Constitution was written for the people of America. The Declaration accomplished its purpose and was generally ignored for a while, but the Constitution impacts on Americans’ daily lives.
While the Declaration primarily justifies America’s separation from its mother country, it contains one sentence that inspires people to this day.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Constitution is more instructional, and does not have a sentence as beautifully quotable. However, the Bill of Rights, approved in 1791 is truly inspiring. We hear many references to the first (freedom of religion, assembly and petition), second (the right to keep and bear arms), fourth (protection from unreasonable search or seizure) and fifth (protection against self-incrimination) amendments. However, perhaps the last two in the Bill of Rights are more inspiring.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Many governments do not choose to identify the limits of their powers, while these attempt to do just that. They seem to echo the spirit of the Declaration and be a perfect counterpoint to the document that begins with the words, “We the People.”
Happy Birthday, America.