It is important and it is eloquent and it has altered the course of human history, but the Declaration of Independence wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.In 1320, a group of Scottish noblemen signed the Declaration of Arbroath, proclaiming independence from the Kingdom of England. In 1581, leaders in The Netherlands signed the Act of Abjuration to declare independence from the Spanish Empire.
Yes, downtrodden people long have been declaring freedom from their oppressive overlords. But for our money, the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified 237 years ago today, is tough to beat. That’s partly because we had to look up “abjuration” in the dictionary, but it’s also because these words remain timeless and powerful:
“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.”
That Thomas Jefferson, he sure could turn a phrase. Few collections of words in the English language have the impact of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those seven words borrow heavily from English political philosopher John Locke, who famously wrote that humans enjoy three basic rights: Life, liberty, and property. Jefferson’s words initially echoed that sentiment, but we feel that Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness somehow better reflect the American ideal. Or maybe they simply influenced the American ideal.
Yet the Declaration of Independence didn’t stop there. Jefferson also wrote this: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And this: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
As we said, the man could turn a phrase. And that makes it instructive and meaningful to reflect upon the Declaration of Independence as we celebrate the Fourth of July. The document, after all, has been associated with the Fourth since long before Henry Chadwick invented the baseball box score or Charles Feltman started selling hot dogs at Coney Island.
And to think that if John Adams had his way, the nation’s independence would not be primarily associated with the Fourth of July. Adams had desired for July 2 to be the celebratory day, marking the date on which Congress voted to declare the nation’s sovereignty. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. He was off by two days.
Which means that today is the day we celebrate, commemorating the independence of the United States with parades and fireworks and barbecues. In New York, the day will have special meaning as the Statue of Liberty opens for the first time since incurring damage in Superstorm Sandy.
And while the Statue of Liberty and the Declaration of Independence stand as great symbols of what the United States has been over the past two centuries, they also remain beacons of the promise that this nation continues to hold. While the republic is far from perfect, while there are economic and social shortcomings, while there is discord in our government and strife in our disagreements, there remains assurance that our nation and our people will endure.
Americans codified their independence 237 years ago today. They have been pursuing happiness ever since.