Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of IndependenceOnce upon a time, on July 4, 1776, in the city of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress officially finalized the final draft of the document known as the Declaration of Independence. This document, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the continental congress, stated that the United Colonies were “free and independent” and “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” on the basis of the accusations that the British government was oppressive. The words of this declaration are famous and familiar, especially the first sentence of the second paragraph, and they have often been quoted as the quintessential statement of American ideology. It is perhaps worth noting that the ideas expressed in this document are not original, and the Declaration of Independence is reminiscent of the Magna Carta in several ways. Technically, the Magna Carta is the more historically significant of the two documents. Even within the story of the birth of our country, there are other occasions that held more significance than the writing and signing of the Declaration. Other important dates include the official beginning of the Revolutionary War, (April 19, 1775) the end of the war (in October 1781) the Treaty of Paris formalizing the end of the war, (signed on September 3, 1783, and finalized when the ratified documents were exchanged on May 12, 1784) and the signing of the constitution which we still use. (September 17, 1787) But it is the Declaration of Independence that we remember as the true beginning of the United States of America.

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

And this raises the question: What if the Declaration of Independence had never existed? The historical comedy musical 1776 (which is a pretty reliable source, right?) gives the impression that the suggestion of writing such a declaration was made in order to put off the vote and win over more delegates who weren’t so enthusiastic about the issue of independency. If the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been written, if the colonies had declared independence only by waging war and not by writing a famous statement justifying it, what would the historical effect have been?

Would the constitution perhaps have been different if it hadn’t had the precedent of the Declaration of Independence? In particular, would the Bill of Rights have been necessary in order for the constitution to be ratified? Would things such as the freedom of religion, (Amendment I) the right to bear arms, (Amendment II) or the various rights concerning law enforcement trial, have needed to have a place in the constitution if the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been all about the existence and importance of rights? And if not, how long would it have taken for those rights to be officially included in the law, and what repercussions would that delay have had on subsequent historical events and cultural mindsets?

What about the Civil War? Would the South have tried to secede over the issue of states’ rights if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were only doing what their ancestors had done less than a century previously? (After all, in both cases, the conflict largely had to do with the geographical distance and cultural chasm been the governing authorities and the relevant sector of the population.) And would the abolishment of slavery perhaps taken a few more decades to bring about if slavery hadn’t been contrary to an important American historical document? After all, the Jim Crow laws existed until close to a century after the end of slavery. I think we can all agree that it’s good that slavery ended in our country a long time ago, but I think we can also agree that the end of slavery was not equivalent to the end of extreme racism, and that the Civil War did little to solve the latter of those two problems. If it hadn’t been for the precedents and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, could the Civil War have been avoided? And if so, would the Confederacy be a separate country or would it have remained part of the Union, but also retained its culture, including slavery, for a longer time?

Or was the Declaration of Independence simply a formality, and would the original American ideology have been exactly the same even without the document that first defined and explained it? Is the Declaration of Independence just a famous piece of paper that technically has no more influence than any of the older documents and writings that say much the same things? Was July 4, 1776 really one of the most important landmarks in American history, or was it just a regular day that we arbitrarily selected to observe as the birthday of our country? I guess there’s no way to know for sure, unless we went back in time and somehow prevented the Declaration of Independence from coming into existence. And I, for one, would like to highly discourage that course of action, because I’m in favor of the Declaration of Independence regardless of whether it was historically monumental or ultimately insignificant.

Why We Celebrate the Fourth of July

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Today is the Fourth of July, the day when being a patriotic American has nothing to do with politics or with acts of public service. The Fourth of July is all about what you’re eating, what music you’re listening to, what you’re wearing, and how much you’re enjoying watching colored explosions in the sky.  That may sound like cynical sarcasm, but I don’t mean it that way. Yes, Independence Day is a good time to be grateful and appreciative to members of the armed forces (although we should be grateful and appreciative to them all the time, just sayin’) and to remember all of the historical politicians who have done great things for America, but in general, the Fourth of July is kind of a generic patriotic holiday for people to celebrate and enjoy being Americans. Unfortunately, sometimes Memorial Day is also treated that way, if it’s even treated as a patriotic holiday at all, and Veterans’ Day isn’t observed as fully as it should be, but that’s something for me to lament in another blog post someday; it’s not part of my point here.

The reason that we celebrate this holiday on July 4th, of course, is because the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. (Actually, that’s not entirely true, but I have just deleted the lengthy section I wrote about that because it seemed to be an unnecessary rambling tangent) In a way, it seems strange that we celebrate the anniversary of the document rather than the war. After all, the Declaration didn’t set anyone free. King George III didn’t read it and say, “You know what, they’re right. Let’s just end this war now and tell them that they’re free; congratulations and good luck setting up the new government.” They still had to fight a real war, and people really died.  The Declaration of Independence wasn’t even a unique historical document in terms of the ideas it expressed; Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from John Locke (who was British) and from the Magna Carta. (Also British) He was merely applying accepted concepts of freedom and liberty to the issues concerning the American colonies. Still, the Declaration of Independence acts as a better commemorative event than the war because it put specific complaints in general terms, making those ideas permanently relevant, and establishing them as principles of the American ideology.

In some ways, the American Revolution itself was kind of petty. It’s true that the American people were being subjugated by the British government, but the situation wasn’t quite as intolerable as they made it sound. It’s not like the British were kidnapping American children to feed them to extraterrestrial dragons who would then fly through the colonial skies, breathing fire upon the defenseless houses and villages they happened to see, then departing into another dimension where they were safe from any pitiful attack that the feeble and weak Americans might attempt. It’s not like the British were enslaving Americans and sticking them in dangerously rickety time machines, sending them back to perilous prehistoric times to mine American soil for the mineral wealth that Europeans hadn’t found yet for the simple reason that Europeans didn’t know at the time that there was any such thing as America.

In fact, the American colonists weren’t in any danger of dragons or enforced prehistoric labor or anything of the sort. Their problem was mostly taxes. That, and the fact that they didn’t like King George. They didn’t believe that someone who lived far away and lived a completely different lifestyle had any right to make decisions that affected their everyday lives. So they fought a war about it, and ever since then, America has been a land of freedom where the government is completely in touch with everyone’s lifestyles and personal needs, and nobody ever has to pay taxes that they don’t want to pay. Oh, wait, not really.

The fact of the matter is that any government has its imperfections, and some things are unavoidable. Unless you’re going for anarchy, you have to accept the facts that the government can’t do everything you want it to, that politicians can’t recognize and meet the needs and desires of each and every individual person, and that some taxes are necessary.  The founding fathers came up with a pretty good system that has worked decently for us for well over two centuries, and it was inevitable that most people would still be unhappy with a lot of the specific events and governmental decisions that have occurred. I’m not trying to justify everything that happens in American politics; I strongly disagree with a lot of it, but I recognize that it isn’t because the system itself is hopelessly flawed. Despite the fact that many conditions are the same as they were at the time of the Revolutionary War, I hope that not many people actually want to fight a war about it. If there ever is another American Revolution, I very much doubt that the new government will be better than the current government.

But political issues, as important as they are, have nothing to do with what we celebrate when we celebrate being Americans. The reason that we observe Independence Day on July 4th, rather than on the anniversary of the end of the Revolutionary War or the Boston Tea Party, is that it’s the principles in the Declaration that define American patriotism. Really, we aren’t even celebrating the merits of democracy, either. We’re celebrating because it’s lots of fun to celebrate a holiday, and if we think that July 4th is a good day to have one, we might as well say that our celebrations are patriotic. I think that’s perfectly valid.