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On this 243rd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Americans will celebrate with hardly a thought for the risks and sacrifices of their forefathers. A little patriotic music, perhaps, some fireworks to light the sky.
But who will remember Thomas Jefferson’s words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and 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”?
These words are preface to the delegates’ list of grievances against the British Crown. Most of the declaration is consumed in reciting the many wrongs George III had perpetrated against the American colonies. These are the “causes which impel them to the separation.”
The United States marks its birth with the Continental Congress’ adoption of Jefferson’s declaration, but the colonies were not recognized as independent until after the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. Those five years were a dangerous time for the signatories of the declaration. By signing their names, they signed their death warrants as traitors to the king.
The last sentence of the declaration reads: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Some who signed the declaration lost their lives in the war; some lost their fortunes. All retained their “sacred honor.”
It’s an amusing exercise, which has been periodically tried by news media and others, to see just how much support the Declaration of Independence has among the American public.
Would you sign a petition declaring:
1. The just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, i.e, “the people”?
2. Whenever people believe a government fails to represent them and protect their rights, they have the right to alter or abolish that government and to institute a new government?
That is what the Declaration of Independence states, and that is what made it a revolutionary document. It is also the basis for the decision, 85 years later, of 11 states to secede from the United States and form their own country.
The agrarian, anti-import-tariff, slave-holding Southern states found the government suddenly dominated by the industrialized, pro-tariff, anti-slavery Republican Party “destructive of those [consent of the governed] ends.” Some Confederates called their cause “the Second American Revolution.”
The war that evolved, killing 600,000 Americans, settled the issue of slavery as well as the issue of the inviolability of the Union.
Despite the language of its founding declaration, the United States would not extend the unalienable right to “alter or abolish” a government as far as declaring independence from that government. Altering might be permitted, but not abolishing.
Author Garry Wills has written that Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, filled out the promises made in the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln, in defining the sacrifices made over three hot, bloody days 135 years ago this week, described the United States as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He proposed “a new birth of freedom,” under a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
This holiday of food and festivals must never lose sight of the personal sacrifices — even “the last full measure of devotion,” in Lincoln’s words — that make this celebration possible.
This editorial is adapted from a Times editorial published in 2016.