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.

In which I use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to spend inordinate amounts of time googling things

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valentine's dayToday, my news feed on facebook and my dashboard on tumblr seem to be mainly composed of posts relating to four categories: 1) Expressions of affection for a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/other family member/best friend, etc. 2) Expressions of sadness  that the individual writing the post in question is “celebrating Valentine’s Day alone” 3) A statement that either praises the customs associated with Valentine’s Day or condemns the holiday as overrated/corny/stupid/commercialized, and then often goes on to criticize anyone who doesn’t agree, and  4) Philosophical musings about the definition of “Love”.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to see anyone on the internet say anything about Valentine. That word is generally used to refer to the type of card that people give or receive on Valentine’s Day, or to a person to whom one would give such a card. But the word Valentine is actually a name, and the holiday Valentine’s Day is named for a person named Valentine. So I decided that this would be a nice time to write a blog post about Valentine, but I had a little problem. You see, I know absolutely nothing about Valentine. (Except that he is presumably a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, because that is the likeliest explanation for why he has a day named after him, and why it is occasionally called “Saint Valentine’s Day”) So I have enlisted the help of Google and Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary in order to bring you some information about Valentine and the history of Valentine’s Day.

Saint ValentineThere are in fact multiple significant historical figures named Valentine, although the internet doesn’t seem to be quite sure how many. Three seems to be the most common suggestion, but I am finding references to what seems to be a lot more than three distinct people. One person named Valentinus was pope for forty days in the year 827, according to the biographical dictionary, which doesn’t give any other information about him. Another Valentinus was a second century Gnostic heretic. Then there were three Roman emperors by the name of Valentinian. The famous two Saint Valentines (who may or may not actually be the same person) were/was a Roman priest who was martyred by Claudius II in 269 and a bishop of Interamna, which is now called Terni. Thanks to Google maps, I now am capable of informing you that Terni is a province in central Italy, 106 kilometers away from Rome, and that if you were to drive from Rome to Terni, that route would have tolls. (Just a heads-up. You’re welcome.)

Saint Valentine’s association with romance seems to be mainly a thing of legend. One story that I saw online says that Valentine was in prison and fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, thus beginning the customs associated with Valentine’s Day. Given the fact that we don’t even know how many different people this guy was, I find this story to be somewhat unreliable. But it is true that the list of things of which he is the patron saint includes “love” and “happy marriages”. I don’t know enough about the way the Roman Catholic canonization process works to know whether or not that might be a result of traditions that later became associated with his holiday.

Saint ValentineEvidently, the actual origin of the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day was a Roman holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15, and it was a pagan festival of fertility, associated with the god of agriculture and with the legendary founders of Rome. When Rome became Christian, Lupercalia was outlawed because it was pagan, but when February 14 became a holiday in the late fifth century, it would seem that some of the pagan associations with that particular time of the year gradually became associated with the new holiday. Our idea of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday originates in medieval France and England. The oldest known Valentine’s Day card was made in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. It was to his wife, whose name was Bonne d’Armagnac, a piece of information that required an additional google search on my part. Charles wrote this valentine from the Tower of London, where he was in prison for being French and getting captured by the English in the Battle of Agincourt.

Esther A. Howland

Esther A. Howland

Valentine’s Day was commercialized by a woman named Esther A. Howland, who began making mass-produced valentines in the 1840s. One final google search reveals that Esther Howland lived from 1828 to 1904, although she retired in 1881, and that one of her contributions to the traditions of Valentine’s Day was putting red paper behind the white lacy part of a valentine.

The other really important Valentine’s Day tradition originated when someone once wrote a “recipe” for a cooking magazine that my mother used to get, which pointed out that if you combine un-jelled red jello with un-set pudding (both made from boxed mixes) and then put that combination in a pan and stick it in the refrigerator, then cut it with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, you get red jello-pudding hearts.

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland