America’s Independence Day, celebrated on the 4th of July, marks the Second Continental Congress’ unanimous adoption of the Declaration of Independence, formally separating the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain. This seminal event that took place two hundred and forty-five years ago in 1776, begs a broader analysis to fully appreciate its essence. Here are some things to know.
The American Revolution envelopes the Declaration’s signing and presents a more panoramic understanding of the United States coming into being. This historic process ran from 1765 to 1783 and encapsulates a gestation period of America’s nationhood. It began with the British Parliament’s Stamp Act (1765), which levied a tax on the then-British colonies. Despite it being repealed a year later, the American principle of “no taxation without representation”, was affirmed and set off a popular resistance to British Parliamentary legislation by the colonists who began to see themselves more as Americans than British subjects. War was brewing.
Tensions grew. Events such as the Boston Massacre (1770), the Burning of the Gaspee cutter (1772), and the Boston Tea Party (1773), all reactions to perceived legislative abuses by Great Britain, ignited the formation of the First Continental Congress (1774). This unicameral legislative body, after deliberation between Loyalists (colonists who supported remaining loyal to the British monarchy) and Patriots (colonists who favored independence), decided to boycott British goods and petitioned King George III for the repeal of punitive laws passed against the Thirteen Colonies (Intolerable Acts 1774).
The appeal was ignored and on April 19th, 1775, with the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the American Revolutionary War (also called the American War of Independence) began. The Second Continental Congress was convened shortly thereafter and serving as a government-in-arms for six of the war’s eight years. It devised strategy, organized the army, raised money for the war, appointed diplomats, sought foreign recognition and assistance, and drafted official declarations. Three important proclamations that this salient institution of the new nation emitted that predates the Declaration were the Olive Branch Petition (July 5th, 1775), the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (July 6th,1775) and Lee’s Resolution (July 2nd, 1776) (named after William Henry Lee).
The first was an attempt to avert war with Great Britain. The second served as a rationalization for the need to go to war. The third, also known as the Resolution for Independence, essentially was a call for separation. It stated 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.” The Second Continental Congress was replaced in 1781 by the Congress of the Confederation, also known as the United States in Congress Assembled. This unicameral governing body which oversaw the final two years of America’s War of Independence, incorporating both legislative and executive functions, drafted the United States’ first constitution: the Articles of Confederation (1781).
The United States War of Independence, fought for eight of the American Revolution’s eighteen years, was a titanic military campaign that witnessed over 1,547 belligerent engagements. Yet, it has been the Declaration and its congressional adoption that historically stands out. Why has this been so? Considering that earlier documents such as Lee’s Resolution, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and ratified on June 12th, 1776, by the Virginia Constitutional Convention almost a month ahead of the Declaration, the intrigue is amplified since both of these texts were separatist affirmations.
Key to appreciating the magnitude of the Declaration is the notion of continuity in the American exceptionalism context. Thomas Jefferson, the principal drafter of the emblematic document, was not assigned this most relevant task for purposes of originality. The new nation entrusted in the future third president the responsibility of gathering the wisdom of the Enlightenment’s finest thinkers, while bearing fidelity to the Christian worldview which epistemologically and morally formed this nation since 1620, with the landing of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Jefferson understood this well.
Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights’ first section opens with: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”. This certainly finds an echo in the Declaration. Jefferson, a Virginian himself, was aware of the text. The congressional assignment laid upon him, however, urged for a more powerful and pristine pronunciation of American values and her call to nationhood. Jefferson’s brilliant literary capabilities enabled him for the chore.
The Declaration contained it all. It unified the Colonies, won the war, articulated the grievances for separation, and framed the American Creed concretely. This was to serve the purpose of preserving for posterity what America was all about. Abraham Lincoln publicly elevated the Declaration to a philosophical text as he reminded the country that his authority to lead a civil war to end slavery rested upon this sacrosanct document. Lincoln understood that the Declaration was the moral recipient and emblem for over eleven other preceding covenants and/or proclamations beginning with the Mayflower Compact (1620) that affirmed a steadfast belief in a transcendental order, Natural Law, self-government, industriousness, and the prudence to craft a sociopolitical system that best conforms to human nature. This is why the 4th of July best represents America’s existence.