Today is the 4th of July, a day of hot dogs, hamburgers, family and fireworks; but of course, it is about much more than that. Today is the anniversary of America declaring her Independence from Great Britain; the anniversary of the people declaring themselves to be free from the tyranny of an overbearing King. It is because of their actions that we are here today; it is because of them that we have a reason to celebrate. But people today seem to have forgotten about this great work of our Founding Fathers, and they have very little comprehension for just how difficult a task this truly was.
In 1776 the time was ripe for independence due to the continual abuse that the colonies received from the English Crown; John Adams of Massachusetts, who had been a boisterous advocate for independence for some time, finally got his wish for a vote when Richard Henry Lee of Virginia delivered a Resolution on Independence to the Continental Congress. Historian Benson J. Lossing explains:
“On the sixth of May, 1776, Mr. Adams introduced a motion in Congress “that the colonies should form governments independent of the Crown.” This motion was equivalent to a declaration of independence, and when, a month afterword, Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion more explicitly to declare the colonies free and independent, Mr. Adams was one of its warmest advocates…The resolution was as follows: – “Resolved, 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.” (1), (2)
When this resolution was agreed upon, a committee was drawn up with the express purpose of drafting such a declaration, and it was comprised of five of our Founders: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Most would expect Adams, being as close as he was to the subject, to write the Declaration of Independence; but as explained in a letter to Timothy Pickering from Aug. 6, 1822, Adams told Jefferson his reasons for believing that Jefferson should in fact be the author:
“Reason first – You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second – I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third – You can write ten times better than I can’.” (3)
Adams realized that one of the barriers to independence was actually himself; his style of argumentation and debate turned off many of his colleagues to his rhetoric and made them reluctant to sign any declaration penned by his hand. But all was not finished once Jefferson completed writing the document; when he presented it to the members of congress, it was subjected to scrutiny and debate, including revisions and edits to the final product. Sadly, many seem to have forgotten that one of the removed segments of Jefferson’s Declaration focused on the evils of slavery:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. 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 on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.” (4)
While Jefferson was quite passionate about this section remaining in the document, he finally gave consent to its removal in order to get Southern Delegates to affix their signatures to the Declaration. When the editing was done Jefferson believed that his work had been “mangled” but remained unspoiled “for the palates of Freemen.” (5)
But even with this great provision having been tragically removed, the final draft turned out to be an amazing, albeit imperfect work of political genius. The Declaration accused King George of many things, including but not limited to; his refusal to assent to laws that were necessary for the public good, dissolving representative bodies that disagreed with his invasive policies, setting up many massive bureaucracies that tormented the people, cutting off trade, raising taxes without consent, depriving many of trial by jury, and participating in what could only be considered as acts of war against the colonies. As the document says:
“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 and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation” (6)
Having all this been said and done, the Congress voted on and approved the Declaration and separation from England on July 2nd; two days later on the 4th of July, the first two signatures were attached to the document by John Hancock and Charles Thompson, with the rest of the signatures coming at later dates.
The 56 signers of the Declaration did more than just sign their names to a document; in signing their names they officially made themselves enemies of England’s King and his armies. The Founder’s pledged their lives, fortunes, and honor to each other with the signing and many of them paid for it in some way or another as time went on. Some lost their lives, some lost their wealth and well being, and some were even captured by the British forces. Once, the Congress was even forced to flee for their lives as the British army came and occupied Philadelphia; what these men did was no small feat, and they deserve our everlasting gratitude for what they accomplished.
But the Declaration of Independence was more than just a resolution of separation from the Crown; it was much more than that. The Declaration of Independence is a political document that stands apart from others; the Constitution may protect our rights, but the Declaration is of equal importance as it describes our rights and where they come from. Consider the opening statements penned by Jefferson:
“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 entitles 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.”
When Jefferson wrote these words, he made certain to explain a few key points: That no matter what station, age, or race (as seen in Jefferson’s deleted portion on slavery), God has created us all with the same rights as one another. That some of the chief and key rights that God has endowed us with are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; that we have the right to live, no one can take our life from us without consent. We have the right to liberty, to be free and to make decisions for our lives. And finally, that we are allowed to pursue happiness in our lives.
But what exactly does it mean to pursue happiness? Many believe it is the right to pursue whatever makes ourselves happy, as long as it has no hurt or effect on someone else’s liberty; but pursuing happiness is much more than that. If one were to search Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary for the term “happiness”, one would find in part:
“HAPPINESS, n. [from happy.] The agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good; that state of a being in which his desires are gratified, by the enjoyment of pleasure without pain…” (7)
Note that the definition talks about enjoying the agreeable sensations of what is “good”; but what exactly is meant by “good”? Again we turn to Webster’s 1828 dictionary where it describes “good” as being what is valid, sound, and:
“Having moral qualities best adapted to its design and use, or the qualities which God’s law requires… Conformable to the moral law; virtuous; applied to actions.” (8)
In accordance with the following definitions, Webster’s dictionary defines Happiness’ root word (“happy”) by saying:
“Being in the enjoyment of agreeable sensations from the possession of good; enjoying pleasure from the gratification of appetites or desires. The pleasurable sensations derived from the gratification of sensual appetites render a person temporarily happy; but he only can be esteemed really and permanently happy, who enjoys peace of mind in the favor of God.” (9)
It must be understood that when the Declaration of Independence proclaims that we have been given by God the right to pursue happiness, it is not only talking about pursuing things that make us happy such as things we find “fun”, but also pursuing things that are moral, correct and good. Accordingly, pursuing happiness with your Liberty includes making sure that your actions are responsible and morally acceptable; as George Washington said: “Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”
As you celebrate today, feel free to have fun, but also remember exactly why we are celebrating, and what our Founders fought and died to preserve; and let us also remember the words of John Adams, as he said:
“All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence, now, and INDEPENDENCE FOR EVER.” (10)
1. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing, p. 30
2. Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing, p. 171
3. The Founders’ Almanac (A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding), Matthew Spalding, p. 129
4. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and other Writings, Official and Private (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853-1854).
6. Declaration of Independence
7. Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,Happiness
8. Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,Good
9. Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,Happy
10. Works of Daniel Webster, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1877, 17th ed., 1:135.