As friends and family gather to celebrate Independence Day we ought to pause for a moment to reflect on its history and meaning.
It was on July 4, 1776 that members of the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Four days later the first public readings of the Declaration were held in Philadelphia's Independence Square to the ringing of bells and band music. It was soon read in other cities. Everywhere the colonists heard it they erupted in cheers and celebration
A year later, on July 4, 1777, Philadelphia marked Independence Day by adjourning Congress and celebrating with bonfires, bells and fireworks. However, while the Revolutionary War raged, July 4 celebrations were modest at best.
When the war ended in 1783, July 4 became a holiday in some places. In Boston, it replaced the date of the Boston Massacre, March 5, as the major patriotic holiday.
The custom eventually spread to other towns, both large and small, where the day was marked with processions, speeches, picnics, contests, games, military displays and fireworks. Observations throughout the nation became even more common at the end of the War of 1812 with Great Britain.
But it was only in 1941 that Congress declared July 4 a federal holiday.
The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary document. Not only did it declare the 13 colonies independence from the British Monarchy, but it challenged the accepted structures of inequality that had previously governed the affairs of mankind.
For centuries human beings had lived in highly structured, hierarchical societies. Economic and political power were the inherited birthright of a privileged few. Most people were subjects, slaves, indentured servants, and peasants, whose role was to serve their superiors, the lord, the monarch, and the priest.
Structured inequality was the natural order of things, political liberty non-existent. As Aristotle wrote: “Some men are born to rule and some to be ruled.”
The Declaration of Independence challenged the idea that all men were created unequally by asserting the opposite: “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.”
This was nothing less than a revolutionary assault on the old order. Men and women, according to the Declaration, were not SUBJECTS who lived to serve a higher power. Rather they were CITIZENS with inalienable rights including the freedom to organize a government whose legitamcy was entirely determined by the citizens who created it. As the Declaration states: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This document authored by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia statesman and slave owner, who became the nation’s first Secretary of State and 3rd President, turned man’s understanding of the world upside down and laid the basis for an expansive democracy.
The defeat of the British led to the establishment of a new government that restricted citizenship to white male property owners. But the Declaration inspired labor republicans, country democrats, abolitionists, suffragettes and civil rights activists who used the words and inspiration of the patriots to extend the rights of citizenship more broadly.
The Declaration lists a series of grievances against King George, the British monarch who ruled the thirteen colonies. While it is well know that the patriots opposed taxation without representation, being forced to house and feed the occupying British troops, and British monopoly control of trade and production, it is rarely mentioned that restrictive immigration policies were another important Patriot grievance. Yet the document declares: "He (King George) has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…”
So as we celebrate this weekend with barbeques and fireworks, with family reunions, brats and beer in our backyards, at our cabins, parks, and lakes, take a moment to remember that two hundred and thirty three years ago thirteen sparsely populated Atlantic outposts of farmers, servants, and slaves declared that all men were created equal with inalienable rights. Since that day freedom loving people from Selma, Alabama to Warsaw, Poland from Tienanmen to Iran have been inspired by the patriots’ declaration of and fight for political liberty.
In the Twenty-First Century, undocumented workers who do our hardest and dirtiest work have picked up where the Patriots and their descendants left off asserting that they too are human beings with rights denied.
On June 24, 1826, Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to Roger C. Weightman, declining an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was the last letter that Jefferson, who was gravely ill, ever wrote. In it, he wrote of the document:
"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."