This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.
Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.
After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.
I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.
I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.
The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.
The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.
It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.
What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.
Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.
It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The ending of the Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.
Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.