We have seen this before. A seminal event – or series of events – begins a process that has wide-ranging effects, some anticipated and others hidden from initial inspection. The current COVID-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter protests are obvious examples. As we approach the anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, sentiments and values that underlie its creation are more visible and vulnerable than have been expressed in past slogans, banners and parades. The document, approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, is brief but explicit, outlining grievances against King George III and asserting “natural and legal rights” that include one of the most famous passages in history:
“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.”
The Declaration of Independence was no easy task and hotly debated among the 13 colonies, but eventually a “Committee of Five” including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman was authorized to draft the document. Jefferson wrote the first draft following a general outline. After numerous edits, the resolution of independence was approved on July 2, 1776 and finalized two days later, July 4th.
A fundamental principal that survived all edits and controversy was the concept of government as a viable entity only through “consent of the governed.” In response to the intransigence of Great Britain to respond to complaints, the colonies declared the right to “throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
At its core, the Declaration of Independence, as Abraham Lincoln asserted in a debate with Steven Douglas in 1858, is a “living” document and statement of rights; “a set of goals to be realized over time” and a moral guide. Many, including women and minorities, were – and still are – denied basic rights, but the path, albeit rocky and filled with political potholes, was surveyed by the colonists and made ready for development. Over two centuries have passed since 56 citizens of a new country signed a declaration that separated our nation from a monarchy. Although the United States has grown in size and stature to become a global leader, it is essential to remember its core principles and honor the power granted to leadership, at all levels, by those governed.
In a few months, the governed will, once again, have their say at the ballot box. It is incumbent on all who have the power granted by our forefathers to use it and do this wisely. Soon commercials, signs and advertisements will dominate the landscape and media, spinning past decisions and obscuring or sharpening perceptions of past practices. Before the onslaught, it is time to reflect on the intentions and values that brought this country into being. The best way to honor their struggle and sacrifice is to take our debt to them seriously and approach our civic obligations with solemn purpose; to reward our politicians who have faithfully upheld their responsibilities or hold accountable those that have not. Incumbency is not a right, rather a privilege, that should only be extended by the governed to those worthy of its responsibilities.
John Hancock, President of Congress and representative of Massachusetts, signed the Declaration with a flamboyant style sure to catch the eye of King George, with the quip, “I guess King George will be able to read that!” Benjamin Franklin’s reply… “Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The cascade of history leads us, at every election, to a reaffirmation of the risks taken in 1776. Have a safe Fourth of July in the pursuit of happiness!