The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the American political tradition. We sometimes forget that our country is a work in progress, and is always moving toward a more perfect union.
The Declaration articulates the fundamental ideas that form the American nation: All men (and women) are created free and equal and possess the same inherent, natural rights. Legitimate governments must therefore be based on the consent of the governed and must exist “to secure these rights.”
As a practical matter, the Declaration of Independence announced to the world the unanimous decision of the 13 American colonies to separate themselves from Great Britain. The Americans’ final appeal was not to any man-made decree, but, to rights inherently possessed by all. These rights are found in eternal “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” which states that a Law against Nature – and Nature’s God, is fundamentally wrong to begin with. As such, the Declaration’s meaning transcends the particulars of time and circumstances.
The circumstances of the Declaration’s writing make us appreciate its exceptionalism claims even more. The war against Britain had been raging for more than two years when the Continental Congress, following a resolution of Richard Henry Lee on June 7, 1776, appointed a committee to explore the independence of the colonies from Great Britain. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston turned to their colleague Thomas Jefferson to draft a formal declaration which they then submitted, with few corrections, to Congress. On July 2 Congress voted for independence and proceeded to debate the wording of the Declaration, which was, with the notable deletion of Jefferson’s vehement condemnation of slavery, unanimously approved on the evening of July 4. Every Fourth of July, America celebrates not the actual act of independence (proclaimed on July 2) but rather the public proclamation of the principles behind the act.
The Declaration has three parts—the famous Preamble, a list of charges against King George III, and a conclusion. (Read it for yourself). The Preamble summarizes the fundamental principles of American self-government. The list of charges against the king presents examples of the violation of those principles. The stirring conclusion calls for duty, action and sacrifice.
Note: It is more than a little interesting to me, that Adams and Jefferson, the second and third presidents, both passed from this life, on July 4, 1826, the 50th Anniversary of the signing of The Declaration.