My kids are past the age for family outings to the fireworks display. I’m not much for crowds myself, so this Fourth of July I stayed home and set off fireworks for the soul. I re-read the Declaration of Independence.
I love the Declaration for many reasons, and not least because it declares. No “on the one hand, on the other hand”; no “but”; no apologies. Instead, something simple: “Goodbye, King George, we are leaving. Here is why.” Living as we do today in an age of fog, we look at the Declaration and see a beacon.
It is courageous too. By putting their names on the Declaration, the signers committed treason. The risk of punishment was real. Just a few days before the Declaration was issued, a colossal British fleet sailed into New York Bay, the largest armada that Great Britain had ever assembled. It took guts to sign the Declaration.
But the signers believed too much in freedom to quake at invasion. In the Declaration, they defined Americans as a free people, unwilling to tolerate governmental abuse, whether brought by royal decree or by warship. The Revolutionaries were not afraid. For example, when they heard the Declaration read aloud in New York City, a crowd took down a statue of King George and melted it for ammunition for the Continental Army.
Today, when the Feds are proposing a massive expansion of their authority, they might remember one of the Declaration’s charges against the King:
“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
As a historian, I can find things to fault in the Declaration. It hardly does justice to those Americans who wanted to stay British (an estimated one-third of the population). It is less than fair to the “merciless Indian savages.” It says nothing about the inconsistency of demanding liberty while maintaining slavery.
But the document wasn’t written for historians. It is a Declaration, not an Assessment. We need the hesitation of the seminar room but we also need the Spirit of ’76. Long may it inspire.