Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Thomas Jefferson, only 33 years old at the time, was chosen to write a draft of the Declaration. One of the masterworks of both literary and political prose, the Declaration opens with a 71-word sentence that although long is clearly and precisely worded:
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 (1).
Although the preamble is Jefferson’s, a comparison of his drafts shows that he was influenced by others like English philosopher John Locke and an earlier Declaration of Rights written by the Virginian George Mason. Another clear influence was Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, used plain language to ignite revolutionary fervor in the colonists. In fact, Paine gave us the modern sense of the word “revolution” as change, as opposed to describing the movements of the planets.
In addition to being influenced by others, Jefferson got help with revisions. His document underwent 40 changes and 630 deleted words as drafts were presented to the Committee of Five and Congress. The date on the Declaration of Independence reads July 4, 1776, but a more accurate date is probably July 2nd when the actual proposal to declare independence was ratified. According to Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, only two of the 57 signers of the Declaration did so on July 4th, Charles Thomson and John Hancock. Hancock’s large signature later became synonymous with signing your name.
The official signing did not take place until August 2nd and the names of the signers, for fear of retaliation, were not released until January 1777. Signing such a document was no small act. It was considered treason, and according to Bryson: “The penalty for treason was to be hanged, cut down while still alive, disemboweled and forced to watch your organs burned before your eyes, then beheaded and quartered” (2).
Stories of the Declaration of Independence being read in Philadelphia on July 4th to the ringing of the Liberty Bell are a myth since the first public reading was on July 8th, and “there is no record of any bells being rung. Indeed, though the Liberty Bell was there, it was not so called until 1847 . . . . “(2).
One year later, however, on July 4, 1777 there is a record of celebrations and parades on the first anniversary of independence. It is also on this date that a new word appeared: fireworks, which previously had been called rockets.
At the core of the Declaration is a list of 27 specific grievances that provide the rationale for revolution. American school children learn mainly about “taxation without representation” (#17), but as you can see by the parallel list below, American colonists had many more reasons to be unhappy with the British monarchy:
-He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
-He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
-He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
-He 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.
-He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
-He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
-He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
-He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
-He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
-He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
-He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
-He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
-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 Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
-For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
-For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
-For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
-For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
-For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
-For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
-For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
-For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
-He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
-He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
-He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
-He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
-He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Today’s Challenge: 27 Reasons to Celebrate
What is something that you love so much that you could write 27 reasons to celebrate it? Select a person, place, or thing you feel passionate about and list your 27 reasons to celebrate it. For example, today might be a day to good day to write “Twenty-seven Reasons to Celebrate American Independence.” (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. –Thomas Jefferson
1 – Declaration of Independence. http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/declaration_transcript.html
2 – Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. New York: William Morrow, 1995.