This weekend, Americans will celebrate the Declaration of Independence with picnics, parades, and fireworks. In the movie National Treasure, Nicholas Cage’s character steals the Declaration from the National Archives in order to protect it from the real bad guys. It’s a good movie, but it never really explains what the Declaration is.
The Declaration was more a process than a moment in history, extending throughout the spring and summer of 1776. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress published a document written by Thomas Jefferson and a committee of colleagues. They declared their independence from British rule and their intent to create a new nation. No one had ever dared to try such a bold move. Delegates from all of the original 13 colonies, except New York, adopted the Declaration on that day. They did not actually sign it until August 2, 1776. Congress declared July 4 a national holiday in 1870.
The Declaration of Independence is not, and has never been, a law. It is a statement to King George III from the Continental Congress telling him that they were seceding from the empire and listing their reasons for doing so. The king was not pleased. This act of treason sparked the Revolutionary War and, eventually, the United States of America.
After the war and a relatively brief encounter with the Articles of Confederation, Congress presented the United States Constitution to the states on September 17, 1787. It took effect with ratification on June 21, 1788. It is the oldest continuously functioning constitution in the world and is the basis for every law in the United States. It includes many of the principles stated in the Declaration.
Unfortunately, most schools do an abysmal job of teaching American history and civics. Consequently, most Americans think we have legal rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. We do not. That phrase is in the Declaration, not the Constitution. There is no such law.
Few Americans have read the Declaration, but it’s well worth your time. I know. You’ve always meant to read it “someday”. This is your chance. While you’re attending parades, eating hot dogs, and watching fireworks this weekend, please take a moment to reflect on what this means to you. It’s a bit long, but it’s worth it. Enjoy!
The Declaration of Independence
WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
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 to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.
There follows a list of 27 specific complaints against the King and the British government.
And the Declaration concludes . . .
We, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
Fifty-six convention delegates signed this declaration on August 2, 1776, including nine from Pennsylvania and Robert Morris, from Pittsburgh.
Teach your children.
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