Journal

July 4th : A Legacy of Independence

by | Jul 3, 2014 | Editorial

Independence Day is the birthday of our country, the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The first one to sign the Declaration was John Hancock, in a script said to be large enough that the British King George III could read it without his spectacles.

Thomas Jefferson wrote most of the Declaration of Independence and every American schoolchild learns its immortal words. Even as adults, we cannot forget. Its second sentence might be called the cornerstone on which out country was built:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But in all the July 4th hoopla, from the parades and fireworks, the sales and the firing up of the barbeques, how often do we take time to think about what these words actually mean? The phrase, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is repeated so often that it is very easy, especially for those of us born to the privilege of U.S. citizenship, to take those three tenets for granted. So July 4th seems to me a very good time to remember that in many strife-ridden parts of the world today, “Life” is precarious, that advocating for “Liberty” can land you in jail, and that the “pursuit of Happiness” is a near-inconceivable luxury.

And what of the words “self-evident”? It turns out that Jefferson originally wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…” It was Benjamin Franklin who changed the beginning of that extraordinary sentence to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Self-evident means requiring no proof; it indicates something obvious that does not need explanation. But though it may be obvious to us today, I believe we would do well to remember that this was a radical notion in 1776. Despite the Magna Carta (1215) and the Glorious Revolution (1688-89), which limited the absolute power of the monarchy, despite the existence of a Parliament, Great Britain was still very much under the thumb of King George III. All of Europe was yoked under an unyielding class system, from its royalty and privileged aristocracy to its peasants and servants with little hope of ever changing their “station” in life. The idea that we are “created equal” and given “unalienable Rights” by our Creator, not by the whims of a king, was indeed revolutionary.

The Declaration and the War of Independence were not just political. They represented a radical shift in human consciousness that gave rise to an entirely new concept: a self-governing nation in which one’s effort and merit, not one’s birth, would determine one’s destiny; a nation in which the value of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” would be core, tangible values; a nation built on freedom, not fear, and on the dignity of every individual. This is what we are celebrating on July 4th.

The first one to sign the Declaration was John Hancock, in a script said to be large enough that the British King George III could read it without his spectacles.

Thomas Jefferson wrote most of the Declaration of Independence and every American schoolchild learns its immortal words. Even as adults, we cannot forget. Its second sentence might be called the cornerstone on which out country was built:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But in all the July 4th hoopla, from the parades and fireworks, the sales and the firing up of the barbeques, how often do we take time to think about what these words actually mean? The phrase, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is repeated so often that it is very easy, especially for those of us born to the privilege of U.S. citizenship, to take those three tenets for granted. So July 4th seems to me a very good time to remember that in many strife-ridden parts of the world today, “Life” is precarious, that advocating for “Liberty” can land you in jail, and that the “pursuit of Happiness” is a near-inconceivable luxury.

And what of the words “self-evident”? It turns out that Jefferson originally wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable…” It was Benjamin Franklin who changed the beginning of that extraordinary sentence to: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Self-evident means requiring no proof; it indicates something obvious that does not need explanation. But though it may be obvious to us today, I believe we would do well to remember that this was a radical notion in 1776. Despite the Magna Carta (1215) and the Glorious Revolution (1688-89), which limited the absolute power of the monarchy, despite the existence of a Parliament, Great Britain was still very much under the thumb of King George III. All of Europe was yoked under an unyielding class system, from its royalty and privileged aristocracy to its peasants and servants with little hope of ever changing their “station” in life. The idea that we are “created equal” and given “unalienable Rights” by our Creator, not by the whims of a king, was indeed revolutionary.

The Declaration and the War of Independence were not just political. They represented a radical shift in human consciousness that gave rise to an entirely new concept: a self-governing nation in which one’s effort and merit, not one’s birth, would determine one’s destiny; a nation in which the value of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” would be core, tangible values; a nation built on freedom, not fear, and on the dignity of every individual. This is what we are celebrating on July 4th.

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