IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776,
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
These words and the signatures at the opposite end of the parchment containing them placed the colonies at a point of no return. It was treason, plain and simple, and every July 4, when we celebrate (and simultaneously forget) the signatures upon that parchment, we are toasting treason (from National Treasure):
A toast? Yeah. To high treason. That’s what these men were committing when they signed the Declaration…
So… Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right…
The question of the actions of the Second Continental Congress is not whether they were right, but whether they were necessary. Treason is never something that is "right" or "okay", even if their purpose is to overthrow a government perceived by its subjects as tyrannical. In describing the conspiracy and treason of the Second Continental Congress, one must instead use the term necessary, as that keeps those actions contained. It is all too easy to describe actions as being either right or wrong, but justifying the necessity of certain actions is much more involved, which Jefferson knew when he wrote the Declaration (emphasis added):
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Yet in studies of the Declaration of Independence, the focus seems primarily on these words:
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.
along with this, the closing sentence of the Declaration:
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.
Ask casually on the street various questions about the Declaration of Independence, and unless you’re speaking to someone who just had a careful study of the document, you are bound to receive many wrong answers or blank stares. I charge you, dear Reader, with a refresher course on the Declaration of Independence. Read through it and see what they were doing. Many people hold the words of that document as "sacred words" or "divinely inspired", but they are no such thing.
One should ask themselves why, only in 1775, did the colonies decide that independence from the Crown was necessary? And yes, I did mean to write 1775, because the American Revolution (or a British Civil War, depending on what side you’re on) started long before the Declaration was written. Study the First and Second Continental Congress for a course on what led to war. You will see that initially the colonies tried to do everything to avoid war, not aggravate it.
Indeed from the first colony in 1604, the second colony in 1620, the colonies and Great Britain existed in relative harmony. There were little qualms between them. Thoughts of severing ties with Britain didn’t enter the thoughts of the most if not all colonists.
The year 1761 brought the coronation of George III, who inherited from the previous King the Seven Years’ War, which included the French and Indian War fought in North America. Initially celebrated by the colonies, along with the rest of Great Britain, George III would start off his reign with a series of unwise decisions. Starting in 1763, following the end of the Seven Years’ War, with Lord George Grenville as Prime Minister, several laws would be enacted that would spark animosity in the colonists, arguably the most inciting of which was the Stamp Act of 1765, which bore the long title of:
An act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, and other duties, in the British colonies and plantations in America, towards further defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same; and for amending such parts of the several acts of parliament relating to the trade and revenues of the said colonies and plantations, as direct the manner of determining and recovering the penalties and forfeitures therein mentioned.
In other words, it was a law that applied only to the colonies. The law was reasonably justified: the French and Indian Wars had been costly to the British treasury, the colonies had been relatively immune from general taxation, and Parliament felt that the colonies should reimburse the treasury certain costs of their protection.
The issue, however, is that the law was enacted without any colonial representation to assent or object, and it wasn’t the only one, nor the first one. The colonies never sent representation to Parliament. It was also seen as a violation of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which provides for a freedom of the press. So the imposition of these taxes that applied only to the colonies led to the popular political sound byte "No taxation without representation". Laws of this nature, tax laws that applied to only one part of the population instead of the population as a whole became the basis for this provision of the Constitution that was overridden in part by the Sixteenth Amendment (Article I, Section 8 [emphasis added]):
The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States
Resistances to these various laws eventually led to the imposition of what would be called the Intolerable Acts of 1774, the preceding event to those acts being the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The Intolerable Acts led to the formation of the First Continental Congress. The British response of force led to the Second Continental Congress, which formed the Continental Army.
There were various ends the colonists were seeking, and those ends could not be found with the government under George III. In an odd political move Jefferson declared in the document that there exist certain rights that no government can touch, an idea that would spark further revolution in Europe and other parts of the world following the success of the American Revolution.
So the question comes down to this: what was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence? To declare independence? Not quite.
Declaring independence was actually the purpose of the Lee Resolution, adopted on July 2, 1776. The initial consideration of that resolution led to the formation of the Committee of Five, charged with drafting the document that became known as the Declaration of Independence. The purpose of that document was to not only declare independence, including into it the wording of the Lee Resolution, but to do something a little more important: justify and explain why independence is being declared.
There are so many overstatements of the Declaration of Independence and the actions of the colonists, that they were doing God’s will or that they were divinely inspired or ordained by God. Not so.
The actions of the Second Continental Congress represent a cup of water superheated in the microwave before a sugar cube was dropped into it. The various actions of the Parliament brought the colonies past the breaking point before all hell broke loose when the British government responded to petitions for redresses with military force. This forced the hands of the colonists. It turned from petitioning the government to fighting them off. As the King made his intentions clear by declaring the colonies to be engaged in rebellion and levying war against them, they had little choice but to declare independence, continue to fight off the British and pray they succeeded. Thomas Paine observed such in his book Common Sense, in which he makes a case for independence.
The Declaration of Independence is treated as some magic, sacred document when history shows it to be little more than the Second Continental Congress being backed into a corner.
So what are we remembering or celebrating this day? If you don’t relearn and remember the history leading up to the historical day of July 4, 1776, when the final text of the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted by the Second Continental Congress, after the colonies had been at war for over a year, I guess you’re doing nothing more than grilling meat and blowing shit up. If that be the case, the memories of those who secured that independence with the willing sacrifice of their lives has been forgotten, their efforts little more than in vain.
Oddly and ironically the words of a British comedian are the perfect summary for what we should remember this day:
We didn’t earn this freedom. It was handed to us on a plate by people who did earn it with their lives. We don’t own it. We’re custodians of it.
— Pat Condell, "Appeasing Islam" (March 8, 2008)
That is what we should all be remembering not only this day, but every day of our lives.