- Published on Wednesday, 04 July 2012 00:00
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The notion of independence had been discussed in the Continental Congress for months. While there had been no official debate, the topic was always just below the surface and there were opinions on both sides. Many in Congress, like much of the population, still considered themselves English. They felt that what they were doing in organizing a Congress and then raising an Army was simply to protect their rights as Englishman.
But while that was going on something else was happening. Something many didn’t even realize. Slowly but surely, the American colonies, bit by bit, with each progressive step, were developing a new identity. Instead of viewing themselves as colonists they had begun to call themselves Americans. This would have a powerful influence on the opinion and the debates of the Continental Congress in 1776.
This growing sense of identity was critical to a vote taken by the Congress in June 1776. For the first time ever, and still with opposition, some of it vehement, the Congress agreed to consider a resolution calling for independence. The vote was not taken immediately, but rather turned over to a committee for the purposes of drafting a resolution. The case had to be made, and it had to be made well, because the resolution wouldn’t pass unless all of the state delegations voted for it. No other vote by an American legislative body, before or since, has had to be unanimous.
The Declaration committee included the likes of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. It was a distinguished group, they were amongst the cream of the colonies, but the writing of the document was left to Jefferson. His skill as a writer, particularly on principles of individual liberty, was well known, and if anyone could put the noble aspirations of the American people on paper, he could.
There were several basic themes in the Declaration that has set it apart from any other public document before or since. Most important, and the core of what it was all about, was the whole idea of self determination. It said that governments were instituted by the people “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” To modern day America that seems only reasonable, but in the 18th century, this was a radical notion. The era was dominated by monarchies and all of them were threatened by this kind of thinking.
In making these claims the Declaration takes the argument a step further. It says that the rights of the individual aren’t given by men to other men, and certainly not by kings, but are instead, “unalienable” and given by God. A concept which is still difficult for some in government to deal with, but offers a higher standard and authority for the way we view our own individual liberty.
The Declaration was also about economics and whether the writers realized it or not, they were setting the stage for a whole new type of capitalism. In several instances Jefferson discusses one of the underlying frustrations of the American colonies. And it wasn’t just taxes. Many in America wanted to start businesses, develop industries and begin producing finished and manufactured goods. But by law, Americans weren’t allowed to do this. Britain wanted America to supply agricultural products and raw materials and buy their finished goods from England. This was their mercantile system, but Americans, the natural entrepreneurs they had already become, wanted the right to go into business and sell wherever they wanted to. Jefferson, in citing his claim that the King had stifled our industry, made this very clear.
Another argument in the declaration dealt with the administration of justice. The British had usurped one of the founding principles of their own constitution by ending trial by jury in some colonies, making judges vulnerable to political pressure, and prescribing punishments that were considered unfair and cruel. These arguments were powerful, but the principles behind them endured well past the revolution, and were the basis of America’s independent judiciary. Now, by virtue of Article 3 of the Constitution, our judiciary is an entirely separate and independent branch of government.
The objective of the Declaration was to put into a few pages the justification for the cause of declaring America independent and for taking up arms. No colony, anywhere in the world had ever successfully challenged the mother country, and certainly not a major world power like Britain. But that’s what the Americans were doing. If there had been odds makers in the 18th century, no rational observer would have given the American cause much hope. It was too radical, and its success, simply too improbable.
The Constitutional Committee probably understood this as well as anyone. And yet, when it was read, even with some 200 editorial changes made on the floor of Congress, its majesty endured. Its eloquence, and the simplicity of its case and its arguments, carried the day. The resolution for independence passed. After which nothing in American, and indeed the world, would ever be the same again.