While it was the force of arms (under the shrewd guidance of George Washington that secure the independence we celebrate today, it is the force of ideas preserved in the document declaring that independence that endures, ideas which remain as potent today as they were 235 years ago on a humid summer’s day in Philadelphia, PA.
As we remember those powerful words which served to sever us from a King (and Parliament) who denied his American subjects the rights those inhabiting his sceptered isle had been acquiring piecemeal for centuries, we recall also how hesitant was Mr. Jefferson to write them. He had little idea then that his words would come to define a nation and inspire men and women suffering under the lash of tyranny around the world for centuries after he was all but dragooned into writing them.
At the time, writes Joseph J. Ellis in his insightful study of the Virginian, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, “no one . . . regarded the drafting of the Declaration as a major responsibility or honor. [John] Adams, like [Richard Henry] Lee, would be needed to lead the debate on the floor. That was considered the crucial arena.” In that arena, Adams excelled, delivering a three-hour address that exceeded all expectations and moved many of his colleagues.
But, because Adams spoke extemporaneously in an era without recording equipment, his address, powerful at the time has been lost to the ages. Without his words, Congress may never have ratified Mr. Jefferson’s. The Virginian even called his Massachusetts colleague “the Colossus of Independence.”
Jefferson himself said that he was “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet [copying] from any particular and previous writing,” he had merely intended his draft
. . . to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.
Despite it’s author’s (professed) humble intentions, the Declaration has become, as Ellis put it, “the seminal expression of the American Creed, the closest approximation to political poetry ever produced in American culture.”
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.
On this day of days, let us take these words to heart and strive to ensure our republic continues to live up to the creed articulated at its founding.