Re-reading the Declaration of Independence is like a glorious sunrise shining new light on the resolve, rectitude and humility of the signers, even 238 years later.
Those troubled founders had to rejoice at the far-reaching power of their total resolve behind the title, “The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America.”
The first purpose of their prose establishes the justification for the Declaration: “When in the course of human events …”.
The next paragraph continues with a magnificent vision, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” As triumphant as that equality was, even they would admit their vision was limited to men, and even relatively few of them. The error remind us to consider unseen limits on our visions.
“Governments deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” is a profound confrontation to thousands of years of suffocating governments.
But they recognize barriers to winning consent. “Prudence indeed dictates that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes,” and “all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing …”
Most of the 56 signers were born to colonial families disposed to suffer, but eight were born in Britain. England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or Northern Ireland.
Having declared the philosophical justification, the Declaration shifts “to a long train of abuses and usurpations” the people have suffered, beginning with the loss of precious rights and surprisingly second, death and destruction.
The loss of rights include, “the establishment of an absolute tyranny over the states;” legislation to force colonies to “relinquish their right of representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only.” King George “refused … legislative powers, incapable of annihilation;” “obstructed the laws for naturalization of foreigners,” and “rendered the military independent of and superior to the civil power.”
The list of death and destruction charges King George had “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of people.” He was “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy of the head of a civilized nation.” And finally 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.”
General Washington read this inflammatory declaration in New York City streets on July 7, two days before the New York assembly agreed to sign it. Rioters pulled down the statue of King George with British Man of Wars in the harbor.
The third stage followed the inflammatory suffrage with a sad reminder their pleas for help gained nothing.
“In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms…”
“nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them … of attempts by their legislature to extend unwarrantable jurisdiction over us, appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred,” but “they too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity. We must therefore hold them enemies in war, in peace, friends.”
Refusing to succumb to helplessness, they end by “Appealing to the supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and claiming “the authority of the good people of these colonies,” they “solemnly publish and declare that these United colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”
It makes three remarkable claims: blessings from God for a divine right, the unanimous authority of their governed, and their self-declared transformation into a free and independent united state — a phenomenal declaration in the history of humankind.
Each man staked everything on it: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”