Once 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.
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.