SAN JOSE, July 3, 2014 — The words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence are still quite powerful words today. The ideals initially inscribed by Jefferson in the Declaration had been around for some time by the late 1770s, but they were substantially woven into the fabric of the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the intent was not to generate a philosophical treatise; it was essentially a declaration of reasons for separation from Great Britain, but much more than that, Jefferson’s words formed a premise for all people to declare their affirmation of the belief that all men were created equal, and a belief that all were endowed by the Creator with the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Yet, the Declaration was undeniably a call to action.
Beyond mere belief in the ideals postulated, the Declaration of Independence was a call to people of conscience to fight for such noble ideals. While the ideals of democracy had been initiated by ancient Greek philosophers and ancient Roman writers who denounced the decadence of the Roman Empire, American writers fanned the flames of conscience, and many a continental patriot rose to take action. In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, and it swept through the colonies sparking sentiment to do more than espouse ideals. He wrote:
…however strange it may appear to some, or however unwilling they may be to think so, matters not, but many strong and striking reasons may be given to show, that nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration of independence.
He went on to list four reasons, the fourth calling for a “manifesto to be published, and dispatched to foreign Courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured… declaring at the same time… we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections [with Britain]” Paine rationalized that a formal declaration should also include a reference to enter into trade with the other European nations. Such sentiment spread rapidly through the colonies and on Friday, June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, put forth a proposal in Congress that resembled the conclusions of Paine in Common Sense. The submission of Lee’s proposal was the formal act of challenging Congress to make a serious decision of whether to submit to business as usual under the Crown or to break from bondage.
Richard Henry Lee had simply presented to the Continental Congress the resolution that `had originally been approved unanimously by the Virginia convention and their President, Edmund Pendleton. When Lee rose to the floor of Congress, he shared almost verbatim the contents of the resolution which had already been known to the delegates to the Continental Congress since late May. The core of the Lee proposal was that the thirteen colonies were “United Colonies” and “of Right, ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES,” boldly proposing outright independence from Great Britain. Unfortunately, even though a majority of delegates had come to favor independence by May of 1776, support for Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was not easily established.
Although John Adams, who reflected the sentiments of those who favored independence, seconded the motion, the consequences of such a formidable decision weighed heavy upon many of the delegates in the Congress. After three days of intense debate over the Virginia resolution, it became obvious that the efforts towards full acceptance had become stagnated. The delegates decided to adjourn, go back to their respective colonies, and secure clarity on this most critical question. John Adams secured the permission to have a committee draft a formal document of resolution so as to save time should the delegates vote favorably on Lee’s proposal. Adams named four other members to be included in the drafting committee: Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was the one asked to compose the initial draft. Jefferson was the only member of the committee from the South, and had rented a second floor bedroom and parlor for the duration of the Congress in Philadelphia. There he set to work, almost as if still a student at William and Mary College. Jefferson the scholar, sifted through all of the incredible ideals through which he had received inspiration, and he bound them to his own thoughts, and as he was an eloquent writer, he composed a document that even impressed John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. He did not simply pen his own ideas. Jefferson brought ideals from ancient as well as his contemporary philosophers and thoughts of colleagues. He especially drew upon the ideas of John Locke.
Although many of the ideals had been around for some time, they had never been more than philosophical treatises. Jefferson’s words formulated a framework and a premise for all people to declare their alliance with freedom and aversion to tyranny. Indeed, it was much more than a philosophical treatise; it was essentially a declaration of war against Great Britain, and yet woven into the very fabric of the Declaration of Independence was a manifesto for the freedom of all humanity. Jefferson had reiterated very efficiently what Thomas Paine had claimed in his pamphlet of Common Sense, and reaffirmed that the cause of America was the cause of the world! Yet the world has never witnessed a revolution like the colonies fighting for their independence.
The words of the Declaration of Independence were a powerful explanation to the rest of the world of why freedom itself was so important: “…to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…” It was the natural outcome of the ideal that all were “…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This was not just an affirmation of faith, it was a demand of what human beings should expect in their lives on this planet. And, in the words of the Declaration: “…whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government…”
The words of the Declaration of Independence were indeed powerful, and represented nothing less than an intellectual or philosophical framework of ideals that sparked and sustained the American colonist’s fight for freedom and the ideological framework for the formation of a nation founded upon the principles of freedom. Although it would take many years of sacrifice and suffering before Independence would be realized, the words of the Declaration would be the lasting foundation for the Land of the Free. Jefferson offered his initial draft to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin who edited it a bit, and then presented his work to the rest of the committee of five. But, before the members of the Continental Congress put their names on the Declaration of Independence, they made over 80 changes.
Once the specific language was deemed satisfactory and expressed the essence of what the delegates could all agree upon, they voted their acceptance on July 4, 1776. Two days prior to this, Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was approved; yet, it was not the final word on declaring independence from the Crown because their words could be viewed in the context of simply “blowing smoke” that would drift away with the wind. By voting for and affirming belief in the words as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and then later affixing their names upon the document, the Founding Fathers were essentially making their decision formally binding, and documenting their determination.
Putting such exacting words of deadly determination upon paper was the culmination of the process begun by the Lee Resolution, which essentially required everyone to make one of the most important decisions of their lives. In reality, the consequences of such a decision would alter the course of human history. Essentially, the delegates agreed to make sure that the representatives of the people in all 13 colonies were willing to consent to such a bold and dangerous initiative. Once the decision was made, such a critical intent it could be argued, was not entirely official until it was written and accepted by unanimous consent by the Founders. They made a promise as a unified body of men, seriously pledging “…their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor…” to the cause for freedom, for a Land of the Free.