Independence Day

It’s Independence Day, and we happen to be with Reasonable Minds Rob and Wendy Gittings in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Rob arrived with his copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in hand, having quizzed his kids all the way from Albany on spelling words from the two documents.

Why did Rob have the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with him? Because he reads them every July 4th. I think that’s a good thing to do. In case you’ve misplaced your copy of the Declaration, use mine:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

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.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He 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, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

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.

It’s tempting to omit the signatures, but in some ways the signatures are the most interesting part. Few of us today — and probably few people in any place or time — are called to make such a public declaration of enmity toward the established order. I once heard David McCullough speak about his book 1776 (which I loved, by the way), and he emphasized the signatures as acts of treason. Dying a traitor’s death was much worse than merely dying, not just because of the method of execution and not just because of the dishonor, but also because of the effect on one’s family when the traitor’s property was confiscated by the crown (hence the pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”). From that perspective, the philosophical or persuasive burden of the Declaration was to demonstrate that treason could be, and was in this case, the patriotic and moral thing to do. The men who signed this document had every reason to expect that the rebellion would fail, and you have to believe something pretty strongly to sign under those circumstances. So by all means, let’s have the signatures:

Column 1
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Column 3
John Hancock
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
Matthew Thornton

Professor John Fabian Witt has an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today arguing (or sketching an argument) that the Declaration is also the beginning of a distinctively American tradition on the law of war. The space is too short for him to make the case very persuasively, but it’s something I’ve never heard and it looks like it might be an interesting book when he’s finished with it. I think he might have left the criticisms of President Bush for another day, literally, but perhaps that’s old-fashioned.

Have a great Independence Day. And see if your kids can spell “unalienable.”

4 Responses to “Independence Day”

  1. Mark Esswein Says:

    We read The Declaration of Independence out loud, every 4th. It seemed to me, a few years back, just a good thing to do. It has since become a tradition. In fact, I was actually going to skip it this year because we have some German guests coming to our gathering, but my wife insisted that we do it.

  2. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Mark, thanks for this. I’m going to print this out and read it to my eldest tonight when I get home from work. The biggest problem with being over here from an educational perspective, in my view, is that he is getting zero American history. Two weekends ago we went to the National Portrait Gallery here in London (a great museum btw) and Brendan asked to see portraits of Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. However, there is a room dedicated to the 18th century and the NPG has a Gilbert Stuart George Washington. I called him over to look at the portrait and he said, “Who’s George Washington?” Not good.

    We’re planning a trip to Hershey Park when we’re home in August, I think a side trip to Valley Forge is in order. The Declaration will be a good introduction.

    Happy 4th and envying you all. I can’t even get a decent hot dog!

    BTW, Mark E, the Germans will love the DOI, lots of long sentences, lacking punctuation and made up words, like “unalienable.”

  3. unclebrim Says:

    Germans will also like the fact that the letter “f” is actually sometimes used instead of “s”, since they have that ridiculous double-s in their language that looks like a script B.

    Foreigners of all sorts should regularly be subjected to recitations of our core documents. They collect non-monetary income from the stability and strength emanating from our fabulous nation all day long, without the tiniest “Thank You”. That makes me angry.

    Now that I dwell on it, I can only commend you for the superhuman restraint you exhibited in not simply subjecting them to a display of preemptive, overwhelming physical force at the personal level.

  4. Del Says:

    Hey, where did this blog come from? It is really very good!

    Great seeing you in England, Fitz.

    – Del

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