Column: Celebrating the birth certificate
In the summer of America’s independence year, a 33-year-old gentleman was asked to write a few lines to communicate why the British colonies in North America were separating themselves from English rule. His drafts were read and revised by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He took their suggestions, completed rewrites, and resubmitted the 1,500-word document to the Congress on Friday, June 28. The following Monday, Congress read and debated the document. They voted to adopt it the next day, and two days later, on July 4, 1776, they ratified it. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was printed that evening and widely distributed to colonial leaders and militia troops over the next few days. Church bells clanged in many places during the week, especially in Philadelphia.
George Washington, general of the Continental Army, ordered his troops to assemble for a public reading in New York. According to author David McCullough, the document boosted the morale of soldiers and citizens. They fired their muskets in celebration even though the army was terribly low on gunpowder at the time. After hearing the declaration read, citizens in the city commenced to tear down a large statue of the king. When the statue was melted, it produced thousands of bullets for the Army.
Jefferson later said his purpose was, “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments never before thought of . . . but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” He wrote of self-evident truths steeped in enlightenment thinking that still resonate strongly in the world today. The fact we are speaking about them even now says something about the power of the ideas in the writing. John Adams knew Jefferson was the man for the job. In a letter, he described Jefferson as a man who “brought into congress a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent for composition.”
After independence was proposed in the summer of 1776, a committee of five was drafted to write the document. Adams, soon to be America’s first ambassador to Great Britain and the first vice president, suggested Jefferson be the principal writer. Adams really wanted to write it, but he realized the he was not as liked as Jefferson in the Congress. He also knew he was a better speaker than Jefferson and could use his talents better to argue the merits of such a declaration. Jefferson, clearly, was the better writer. This alone says something to us about the founding fathers. Many of them, at different times, held humility as a supreme virtue. They saw a probable outcome to certain events and did not allow themselves to get in the way of the beginning. Jefferson, writing in a two-room apartment owned by a Mr. Graff, slept in one room and wrote at a small desk in the other. Ben Franklin, at 70 years of age and suffering from terrible ailments, became his chief editor. Jefferson hated to have his work edited and changed; however, he also found the humility and the passion to improve the document and make it agreeable to the majority of the Congress.
Who cannot hear the words and recite them – “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable 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.”
John Hancock signed the document first. His large signature signified the brashness of the man and the document. He said the signature was there so England’s King George III would not miss seeing it. Other delegates signed later; pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
The declaration was radical and revolutionary. It was written at a moment when the outcome of the Revolutionary War was uncertain. The ideals it espouses were criticized in Jefferson’s time and remain some of the greatest, and most difficult, to live by. His declaration represents people "stepping out" into a new frontier. Some thought equality an absurd proposition. Yet, the words are still being read in many thoughtful and political revolutions. It should not be lost on us that the people who signed the document became traitors to their former country. Several lost their lives. Others became separated from families. Many saw their homes invaded and their possessions burned by British troops.
The late English writer Alistair Cooke credited Jefferson with writing the birth certificate of America. And, as Lincoln said, we have needed rebirth at times to seek the true meanings and action the words convey. Other countries have been birthed with the same language. How sweet freedom rings.