Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Birthday America!

Happy 4th of July! Today celebrates the birth of our nation symbolized by the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The War for Independence had actually been going on for some time by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed. When Thomas Jefferson joined the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the summer of 1775, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill had already occurred, and the document was still a year from completion.

Thomas Jefferson was different from most of the other delegates to the Continental Congress in one important way: he could not speak in public. The Continental Congress was already emerging as an arena for orators. The public letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson describe the participants in this way:

Edward Rutledge of South Carolina
“Sprightly but not deep”
Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania
“Too much of a talker”
Roger Sherman of Connecticut
“A perfect model of awkwardness”
Edmund Pendleton of Virginia
“The ablest man in debate I have ever met with”

John Adams himself had emerged as one of the most effective public speakers, using his combination of legal knowledge and oratorical energy to overwhelm some of the more timid delegates. The acknowledged oratorical champion, though, was Patrick Henry of Virginia. His speech against the Stamp Act had been widely publicized throughout the colonies and made him second only to George Washington in public attention and support.

In this milieu, the Thomas Jefferson found himself assigned to various committees, and without the ability to speak effectively, he was given the task producing reports of the proceedings. He became the acknowledged leader in drafting the various Resolutions of the Congress, including the Resolutions of the Congress on Lord North’s Proposal, which effectively closed the door on any compromise with England.

The winter of 1775 was difficult for Jefferson, as his wife struggled with a difficult pregnancy and his mother died following a very brief illness. At one point, he even asked to be recalled as a delegate. He believed that the success of the revolution would occur at the state level, with each state responsible for developing a constitution. With that belief, he felt he was not really needed in Philadelphia.

It is fair to say that none of the participants in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence realized the historical importance of their actions. They were more concerned with drafting constitutions for the individual states and with forming alliances with France and Spain. Jefferson was denied his request for recall on the premise that he was needed to draft the constitution for the State of Virginia. In his first and third drafts of the Virginia Constitution, Jefferson included a list of grievances against the crown, which extended to all the grievances against the colonies. This list became the basis of the lengthiest section of the Declaration of Independence, the list of grievances against the king.

On June 7 Richard Henry Lee moved the resolution “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States….” The body then debated whether to debate the resolution. (This should sound familiar to ACEP Councilors.) The vote was tabled until July 1st and a committee (Task Force?) was formed to draft a document for the vote. That committee included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Robert Sherman. As with a great many such efforts, all the writing was done by Thomas Jefferson. It was placed before the Continental Congress on June 28 and ratified on July 4, 1776.

Jefferson had crafted the most memorable fifty-eight words in American history:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain [inherent and] inalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

It was the ideal instrument placed in the perfect position at precisely the right moment. It was not merely the birth of a nation. It was the seminal moment of the American Dream.

Happy Birthday, America.
photo by angela gardner

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