Why is it that the Founders encouraged Americans to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence “with bon fires and fireworks,” instead of the date upon which the United States Constitution was ratified? I believe it is because they understood that America’s true foundational document is not the US Constitution, but rather the Declaration of Independence that was signed on July 4, 1776. The Constitution is the highest law of the land, but the principles upon which it was constructed have their origin in the Declaration of Independence.
In truth, King George III had himself dissolved the bond between England and the Colonies when he chose to violate the Magna Carta that was signed at Runnymede in 1215 by King John. The Magna Carta limited the King’s power and made the rule of law superior to the whims and wishes of a King. The Magna Carta formed the basis of rights for English citizens. When King George III, through an act of the Parliament, imposed taxation on the Colonists without them having a say in the matter, he violated their rights as English citizens under the Magna Carta and in effect the Colonists lost their English citizenship.
The Declaration is a marvelous and timeless document. It establishes without equivocation the foundational principles of a free society. Included in these principles is the acknowledgement that rights come not from government, but from God.
“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.”
It was, in fact, this bold statement “that all men are created equal” that gave hope to and ultimately secured freedom for those who were enslaved at the time of the signing of the Declaration. Clearly, the framers knew that all men (and women) are not equal in terms of God-given talents, abilities, intelligence, skills, and aspirations, but rather that each has an equal standing under God and under God’s law. Further, that each man and woman has the right to equal justice under the law and to go as far in life as they can, in whatever direction they choose.
It is important to note that while the Signers affirmed the equal standing of all citizens under the law and their right to liberty (freedom), they also affirmed every American’s right to pursue happiness. The Signers, most of whom were devout Christians, were well-grounded men. They understood the shortcomings of human nature and thus they knew that government can only protect and defend the “pursuit of happiness,” not guarantee it.
Jefferson’s original draft included “censures on the English people” that included in part blaming England for the introduction of slavery into America. Whether Jefferson was right or wrong, this admonition was deleted in order to get the Declaration passed, but it was not forgotten. It seems inconsistent and hypocritical for slave owners to be signing a document declaring independence, personal freedom, and equal justice under the law. But in fact, by setting forth this declaration, these slaveholders and the others who signed the Declaration established the principles under which all Americans achieved freedom. Theirs was a personal failing, but not the greater failing of someone who misunderstands human nature and who rejects God and the laws of God.
Unfortunately, this failing carried over to the creating of the United States Constitution itself. However, it is worth noting that there were many prominent abolitionists among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and those who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The most prominent of these was Ben Franklin, who as President of the Philadelphia Abolition Society, announced his intention to introduce a resolution calling for the condemnation of slavery in the Constitution. Franklin reluctantly refrained from introducing the resolution in order to hold the shaky union of former colonies together.
It was left for other Americans, more than a century later, to fight for and secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans and to end what Jefferson is reputed to have described as “the fatal flaw of the Constitution,” the enslavement of African Americans. It was left to Abraham Lincoln to lead the United States out of slavery.
But back to the Declaration of Independence itself, the ending words laid the foundation of the great and good United States of America we are blessed to live in today:
“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 the 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 the full Power to levy War, conclude peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may or 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.”
And what happened to the men who signed this historic and unprecedented statement of “unalienable rights” given to them by God?
Five signers were captured by the British, tortured, and executed as traitors. Twelve had their homes burned to the ground. Two lost sons in the war. Nine of the 56 signers died of wounds or hardships suffered during the war.
Carter Braxton, a wealthy planter and trader, lost everything and died a pauper. Thomas McKeam too suffered the loss of all his possessions and ended life in poverty.
How great was their dedication to the cause of freedom? At the Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr., seeing that the British General Cornwallis was using the Nelson home for his headquarters, quietly urged General Washington to open fire. Washington did so and the home was destroyed. Thomas Nelson died bankrupt.
These farsighted men signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if captured or if the Americans lost the war. Theirs was a very high risk gambit. England was the most powerful nation in the world with the largest navy and army. The American chance for success was very slim, yet these courageous men willingly signed and pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to secure freedom for you and me and for all Americans that came after them.
Our Founders put their faith in God and their trust in the good judgment of their fellow citizens. Amazingly for their time, 50 to 75 percent of the white, male citizens had the right to vote.
The Founders well understood that the greatest threat to individual freedom comes from the concentration of power into the hands of a few all powerful men. They knew history was full of examples of dictators and kings who sought power over others and abused such power for their own gain. They understood that there is no person or groups of persons who are benevolent and kind and would not use power to limit the freedom of others. They understood that all men, including themselves, were corrupt sinners prone to take advantage of others. That’s why they wanted to limit the power of those in government.
While our generation suffers from generational arrogance, believing without any empirical evidence, that somehow we are better or smarter or wiser or kinder or more generous than previous generations, the Founders understood the terrifying nature of all powerful, centralized government. They sought to disperse and limit power in order to maximize individual freedom. And most important of all, they feared and trusted God as the ultimate ruler of the universe. In fact, James Madison said, “Belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the World and the happiness of man, that arguments to enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources.” And speaking of the Constitutional Convention, Madison said, “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in [the convention] a finger of that Almighty hand.”
Since the time of the American Revolution, our freedom and the founding principles have been tested and challenged time after time. Blood was shed in 1812 as America once again fought the British. Finally in the ugliest and nastiest inter family fight of all, the American Civil War, slavery was abolished once and for all. There have been numerous wars and skirmishes, including all out battles for survival in World War I and II, and still today in the War on Terrorism Americans are shedding their blood and giving their lives for your freedom and mine.As we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence this year, may we be resolved to fight for and preserve America’s founding principles whether the challenge comes from without or within. How can we do any less than to pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to preserving freedom in our land. God bless America! Happy Independence Day!