Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Declaration of Independence 1776 to 2009

It’s been 233 years since the original was signed. In not too many years, its 250th anniversary will be a major event.

For such a celebration, it’s high time a select committee was formed to plan it. If your city had just been awarded a future Olympics, it would be starting to set the wheels in motion. So the Declaration’s 250th celebration needs similar immediate action.

To fully appreciate the Declaration, I start at the end. Consider what the signers promised:

“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

They risked everything; they held nothing back. For some it turned out alright; for others it was a great hardship. Every time I see these words, it’s goose bumps.

The origin of the Declaration was taxes, ten years earlier.

Trade is the glue which keeps the world connected. With trade come taxes and tariffs. Free trade is a lot easier said than done. It certainly wasn’t Britain’s policy.

In 1765, the British were desperate for cash after their successful but financially ruinous French and Indian War. So, logically, they looked to their very prosperous colonies for money. Taxes were the established way of obtaining it.

But the colonies viewed it all with great alarm.

So the saga of “no taxation without representation” (in Parliament) began. In subsequent years, the British tried to levy tax after tax, colonial trade restrictions, even sending troops to quell unrest. The situation steadily deteriorated.

At the center was King George III, obstinate, intent on punishing his rebellious colonies.

By the time the Second Continental Congress was convened in 1775, the battle lines were drawn.

In 1776 Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense had taken the colonies by storm. Congress laid out how many actions of George III and his Parliament were a grave threat to the well-established and fundamental liberties of the colonies.

To justify separation from Great Britain, Congress needed a document. A committee selected a talented writer, Thomas Jefferson, to prepare a draft.

After considerable congressional editing, the final version is what we read today.

George III is the central subject. But as historian R.B. Bernstein explains in his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition 2002, the Declaration has “taken on a life of its own”. Concepts such as life and liberty have cosmic proportions. The words are not just about independence from Great Britain.

July 4 is the accepted date for celebrating. Some historical purists claim July 2, when Congress voted for independence; others even argue for August 2, when delegates officially signed. Oh dear, I hope there are no more changes!

Don’t worry, I’m going to stick with July 4. Please read the Declaration on that day. Thank you. –Renata Breisacher Mulry

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