Two hundred, thirty-six years ago something amazing happened. A group of statesmen put their names to an essay penned by Thomas Jefferson. In so doing, they publicly declared themselves to be enemies of the British monarch. They may have signed their own death warrant.
This essay, which we now refer to as the Declaration of Independence, is perhaps one of the finest examples of a wordsmith’s work. Consider some of its passages:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
What an incredible introduction. Jefferson from the start sets forth why this declaration was written: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” requires an explanation of the schism between the American Colonies and the Crown.
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.
This is probably the most famous sentence in the entire Declaration. Indeed, many mistakenly believe this is in the Constitution. Read that sentence again—I think it may be the most beautiful sentence written in the English language.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…
Governments are created to secure our rights. And when a government fails, the people have the right to alter it or even abolish it. Those are the words of a radical. Indeed, not long after the Revolutionary War, we Americans would end up abolishing our national government set up under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and adopting our Constitution.
If you’re like most people, it has been a very long time since you read the Declaration of Independence. On this holiday or in the days after, read it. Or listen to it. If you’re like me, you’ll appreciate the flow of the words, the links between the ideas expressed in the Declaration. And for a moment, perhaps get a glimpse of the principled honor that the fifty-six signers exhibited.