Independence Day, July 4th, occurs this week. It is easy, 232 years after the event, to focus on the day the document was signed rather than on the importance of the document or the process it took to create the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence provided a vision of the desired outcome - a new nation, but meeting that vision required time, work, and sacrifice by its citizens.
The French and Indian War ceased in 1763. The British, burdened with debt, taxed the colonists (without their say) to help pay off the debt and the cost of maintaining troops in the colonies. Many colonists did not approve of the British taxes and friction grew between American colonists and the British.
A confrontation between a British sentry and colonist led to the Boston Massacre in 1770. Five colonists died. The news of this incident spread rapidly. Paul Revere, later know for his middle-of-the-night horseback ride, created an engraving of the incident that soon circulated throughout the colonies.
The friction between the British and the American colonist continued. To protest a new British tea tax, colonists organized the Boston Tea Party in 1773. No one was killed, but goods worth more than $1 million in today’s dollars were destroyed.
The American Revolution officially began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When the British army and the Minutemen met at Lexington, an initial standoff ended when a shot was fired. It soon came to be known as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The American Revolutionary War had officially begun.
The Second Continental Congress voted on June 7, 1776 for a resolution stating “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Thomas Jefferson was tasked with writing this “Declaration of Independence.” He finished a draft within three weeks and, after a few revisions, Congress adopted it on July 4, 1776.
It says, in part:
“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,”
This document is incredibly important because it acknowledges that the Creator gives rights to men, who then loan the rights to the Government. In this model, the Creator comes first, then man and then the Government that man created.
The Declaration of Independence proclaims that life and liberty are the unalienable gifts of God – natural rights – which no person or government can rightfully take away. It affirms that the purpose of government is to protect these God-given rights, and that government is subservient to the people. The people, not the government, hold the power. Government derives its powers from the consent of the governed (the people). Our Declaration reduced the status of government from the master of people (as in English rule) to that of the servant of the people.
July 4, the day the document was signed, is the day we celebrate as Independence Day. However, at this point, we were far from independent.
The American Revolutionary War raged on for more than five more years. British General Charles Cornwallis formally surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. But the cost of the war had bankrupted the Congress. Many soldiers had fought for more than six years without pay. While we were an independent nation, it was unclear how long we would remain that way.
The inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States occurred on April 30, 1789, and signaled a move toward order and stability: our freedom had been declared and won, our Constitution adopted and our president elected and in office.
The work for a free country continues today. While celebrating the birth of our nation’s Independence on July 4th, we also celebrate our growth, trials and triumphs.
July 4th should be more than a simple celebration, but a time to reflect on the importance and responsibility of citizens of a nation who “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.”
Our rights come from God, to be loaned to the government - let us pay thanks to God for these rights while we remind the government that these rights are only loaned to them by the people. They govern only by the consent of the governed.