Daily Archives: September 1, 2007

Civics on Saturday – The Declaration of Independence

Welcome to the first installment of Civics on Saturday! I’m REALLY excited about this, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

I should start by mentioning that I’ve decided to change my approach a bit. I originally said that I would post the text of whatever document I was investigating, but I find that this tactic takes up a whole lot of space. Instead, I’ll post a link to a very clear and readable online version of the text in question, and I’ll quote from that source whenever necessary in my musings about it. I’ll suggest that you folks go and read the document through before they get to my analysis of it, but that’s for the individual readers to decide (or, if you’re like me, you’ll print a copy so you can make notes and follow along, but that’s assuming an awful lot of over-achieving geekiness in you people).

Before I begin, I’m going to ask – no, make that beg – you to comment. I want to hear about your experiences in learning this stuff, and I really want you to correct me if I say something dumb. I have no background in law or government beyond what I got in high school and Gen. Ed. college classes – I’m making my way through this material armed with little more than a foundation in literary analysis and a strong desire to learn – so chime in if I make a bad analysis or if I generally come off sounding like a moron. I’m sure these things will happen at least once or twice, and I depend on people smarter than I to keep me on the straight-and-narrow. That’s you, okay? Okay! Here we go!

On June 11, 1776, the composition of a Declaration of Independence was ordered by Congress, which created by a committee for the purpose. This body was composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, and Jefferson was tasked by his fellow committee members to write a draft of the document. It was this draft, or “fair,” copy which was submitted to Congress on June 28, and was adopted in Philadelphia on July 4th.

Several copies of the Declaration of Independence, called “Dunlap Broadsides,” were created following the document’s approval by Congress: twenty four of them are known to exist today. The documents were signed by 56 men, the first (and largest) signature being that of John Hancock, then president of the Continental Congress. These men took great personal and professional risk in signing this document: doing so was considered an act of treason and brought with it the potential consequences of the crime. Of course, we all know that it’s only a crime if you get caught. We won the fight for independence, so it all worked out for the good.

The Declaration of Independence begins with this statement:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and 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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Essentially, this is a long-winded and grammatically complex way of saying that it’s only fair for us, who want to be independent of our political connection to England, to say why we want be independent; that it’s important that we not come off as petulant, spoiled children and demonstrate to any who are interested that there’s just cause for the divorce.

The next passage begins with what I think is one of the most important lines ever written in the history of our nation:

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Essentially, this bit is saying that rights don’t come from government: it’s not the king or the czar or the pharaoh or whoever’s making the rules who gets to say what rights people get, it’s for GOD to say. The fact that we exist, the framers said, automatically grants us these rights: they’re non-negotiable. Government doesn’t exist to bestow rights, they go on to claim, it exists to protect them. Once a government fails to do that, it is the right of the governed to get rid of that system.

This, as best as I can tell, was an incredibly radical notion in its time (and, really, if we look around the political globe today, it’s still pretty damned revolutionary). It essentially reversed the paradigm of government and put the authority in the governed; the rulers have a job because we say they do, we don’t have our lives because they decree it.

It really is a shame to think that it’s taken us this long to really start to embrace the “all men are created equal” line, though (if, indeed, we actually have embraced it – I really do think the jury’s still out on this). I recognize that this line didn’t fly well when it was written – a lot of the delegates took issue with it, both for racial and gender-based reasons – when only a small portion of the population (white male landholders) had any authority at all and was really bent on keeping it. I learned, on my trip to Williamsburg, that Jefferson was pressured to modify that line to reflect the current state of things – all men weren’t created equal, of course; black men, for example, weren’t considered men at all, and we didn’t even consider women in the equation. Still, it’s a beautiful and important line, and I think that our world would look a whole hell of a lot different if Jefferson had bowed to pressure and edited it out of this document.

As best as I can tell, most of the rest of the Declaration of Independence is simply a list of grievances put forth by the colonists against King George III of England, to articulate the “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism” that makes the colonists believe that “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Jefferson set about fulfilling the promise set forth in the first paragraph by listing the justifications for the colonists’ desire to be free of English rule. My favorite gripes are these:

He (ed. note – that would be King George) has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

I love the way this grievance is worded; it sounds whiny and petulant – “he makes us go all this way to do our jobs” – but when you think about how hard travel was in those days (it took a couple of days to go 100 miles- something we can do now in a little more than an hour), it doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable complaint after all.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

I just love the words in this gripe – swarms and harass and eat out their substance. It kind of makes the British seem like a plague of locusts, doesn’t it?

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

So, not only is he being a jerk, but he’s conspiring with others to piss us off. This, of course, can’t be allowed to continue.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Again, I love the verbiage of this passage – the asyndeton* works for me, and I can really hear the anger in Jefferson’s words.

Before I finish, I want to direct you back to a post I wrote on Independence Day. In it, I’ve included a link to the NPR site, where you can hear familiar NPR personalities reading the Declaration of Independence to you (for those of you who are auditory learners). I would also recommend that you head over to this site (where I got the facts for the first part of this post) and to one of the National Archives’ sites to learn more about this foundational document.

Happy Saturday!

*asyndeton is the name for the rhetorical structure that eliminates the use of conjunctions – most commonly, “and” – from between words, phrases or clauses. The result of that omission is a more powerful, vehement tone: see Kennedy’s inaugural address when he said “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, when he said “We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use those words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line.


Filed under Civics and Citizenship