Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Independence on Display

[This is a guest post by Reference Librarian and Senior Lecturing Fellow Marguerite Most.]
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.
With these words Richard Henry Lee of Virginia stood before the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776 at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall today) and advocated independence from the British Crown. Lee's Resolution began the series of events that lead to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and its adoption on July 4, 1776.

Five days after Lee's Resolution was introduced, the Congress appointed a committee to "prepare a declaration to the effect of the said first resolution." The Committee of Five – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and William Livingston – edited Jefferson's initial draft and presented it to the Congress on July 2. The Congress voted for independence from Britain. Two days later, on the Fourth of July, church bells rang out over Philadelphia. The Declaration of Independence, setting out the rallying cry, and justification for the American Revolution and for ending the rule of George III over the North American colonies, had been adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies.

Independence Day display in
Riddick Room, Level 3.
The following day copies prepared overnight by John Dunlap, the official government printer, were sent to state conventions and commanders of Continental troops. New York added its support on July 9, and ten days later the Congress announced the Declaration of Independence "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America," and ordered that it be engrossed and "signed by every member of Congress." John Hancock, President of the Congress, signed first.

The Declaration has been called "something of a press announcement...when newspapers were still an inadequate means of reaching people." The text was publicized with public readings on court days and in Massachusetts, after Sunday services. These readings were accompanied by parades of militiamen, gun salutes, and the ripping down of royal flags – all intended to rally support of the colonists.

Beyond speaking to the colonists, the signers of the Declaration were looking for foreign aid. To continue the 15 month war effort against Britain the colonies needed financial help from foreign powers. Inclusion in the Declaration that "these United colonies are & of right ought to be free & independent states" with "separate and equal station" among the "powers of the earth," announced to the world, and specifically to France, that the colonies had become a treaty-making entity. International standing freed the colonies to form alliances with foreign nations, and independent status meant foreign nations could form alliances with the colonies without meddling in Britain's internal affairs. Within the month, a committee of the Continental Congress began drafting a treaty with France, as well as a confederation binding the thirteen new sovereign entities.

Although the celebrated preamble of the Declaration of Independence declares that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, John Adams himself noted that the Declaration contained nothing novel. And political historians generally agree that the principle source of its political philosophy reflects the writing of the English philosopher John Locke. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke refuted the doctrine of the divine rights of kings and wrote of a contractual government with God-given natural rights that precede the existence of the state. Among the rights belonging to man by the laws of nature and of God were life, liberty, property and equality.

Although Locke is considered the most famous source of American political ideas, historians mention the common law, including Magna Carta, and the treatises of Edward Coke and William Blackstone as providing legal ammunition to the colonists. Of the 55 delegates to the Continental Congress, 45 were lawyers or had legal training – they were familiar with the works of Blackstone and Coke. These English barristers wrote of the law of nature as defined by the will of God, and, like John Locke, they recognized certain natural rights guaranteed all men. Fundamental Law and the American Revolution 1760-1776 by Charles F. Mullett provides a detailed discussion of continental and common law sources of political thought known to members of the Congress.

Closer to home, Jefferson drew on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason and adopted on June 12, 1776, when he composed the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence. Both documents recognize the "natural rights" of man. As well as providing a model for the Declaration, George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights became the basis of the United States Bill of Rights and was widely copied in other colonies. Notably, Locke's natural rights included property, while the Declaration of Independence does not.

As often remarked, time can alter history in the public mind. For members of the Continental Congress and for Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Declaration of Independence was not the founding document of American liberty we celebrate today, but rather, in Jefferson's words, was meant to offer "an expression of the American mind, and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion." This was a revolutionary document dissolving ties with Britain, justifying the break, and clearing the way for new governments to serve the "safety and happiness" of the people.

Later generations across the political spectrum have invoked the Declaration to support their causes. Abolitionists and suffragettes, as well as populist movements, have drawn on the Declaration. Abraham Lincoln invoked the Declaration of Independence when he opened the Gettysburg Address with these words: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." And in the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King recalled the Declaration of Independence with these words: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." In his 2013 inaugural address, President Barack Obama remembered the Declaration of Independence with these words: "What makes us exceptional, what makes us America, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

In his 2013 book For Liberty and Equality: the Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence, law professor Alexander Tsesis examines how the Declaration has shaped the United States over time, and the roles it has played in the drafting of the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, and in presidential debates and elections in the twenty-first century.

Noting our country sprang forth from a revolution in political and social structure, law professor J. M. Balkin in his article The Declaration and the Promise of a Democratic Culture argued that "we should interpret the Constitution in order to fulfill the promises that we Americans made in our Declaration, promises that are to be redeemed in history, and that we should understand many of our most important social movements as a continuation of the original social revolution against unjust hierarchy that began with the American revolutionaries."

If you are around the Library this summer, we hope you will take a few minutes to look at the Fourth of July display in the Riddick Room window. The display includes a facsimile copy of the Declaration of Independence and a selection of books from the Library’s collection. The quotes about the Declaration were identified through these books and searches of primary texts and online databases. Happy Fourth of July!

--Marguerite Most, Reference Librarian and Senior Lecturing Fellow

Additional Reading