Happy 4th of July
Many other countries have a holiday, which marks in some way the beginning of their history as a nation. In the older nations of Europe, it is often a saint’s day honoring the missionary credited with bringing Christianity to their country. Some celebrate a day honoring a king who conquered and unified a country.
Others, like ours, mark the day their country gained independence from another nation, either through revolution, like the US and Mexico, or through peaceful cession of power, such as Canada and Australia.
But the United States was the first nation that created a new society as an act of will, and explicitly stated the principles on which it would be governed in a founding document. For us it was the Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson.
It is the ratification of the Declaration “In Congress Assembled” that we commemorate on the Fourth of July.
We have largely forgotten how radical that document was viewed at the time – and how much it terrified the ancient autocracies of Europe.
“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 abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
These words were dynamite laid in the foundations of every tyranny on earth. They denied, destroyed, the legitimacy of any government not based on a general consensus of its citizens.
At the time it was widely ridiculed, by those who scorned the doctrine of equality of rights, but also by those who pointed to the hypocrisy of the Founders.
Samuel Johnson said, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
Jefferson was well aware of the contradiction. In the original draft presented to the Continental Congress was this clause:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
It was struck from the final version of the Declaration at the insistence of Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a leader of the southern delegations.
Yet the crucial words remained, and as was foreseen, in time it could not be denied that they applied to all men and women.
Thomas Jefferson lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and saw the nation he helped found grow from 13 to 24 states.
He died on the Fourth of July, 1826, just hours before his old friend, bitter
opponent, and at the last, old friend again; John Adams.
Jefferson’s last words were, “Is it the Fourth yet?”
Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson lives.”
This appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Record, July 4th issue.