Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

musings on the American Declaration of Independence

In a few days, the U.S. will celebrate our national holiday which originates with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in which the colonies on the eastern shores of North America decided they were no longer part of Great Britain’s empire. It was actually a declaration of war, though the American Revolution had begun the year before with skirmishes at Lexington and Concord(in Massachusetts).
Though this document is familiar to any American school kid, I don’t know if I’ve ever read the whole thing before. Some of my local book group pals said the same thing. So, I was rather surprised at what I found after a recent careful reading.
For one thing, it’s comprised of just two paragraphs. The first one is gigantic, with most of the famous lines at the beginning and a list of grievances following. This list is quite long and they didn’t even use bullet points. These “Facts… submitted to a candid world” showed England treating the 13 Colonies like a neglected, poor relative without due process of the law, taxation without representation, trade restrictions, press gangs, obstructing immigration and a large intrusive military presence. Words like “pretended”, “unfit” and “tyrant” are used to describe George III and his representatives. He has opposed “with manly firmness his invasion on the rights of the people”. So polite, these colonists, complimenting this tyrant’s masculinity. Considering the treasonous rebukes being flung, the tone in this section is that of a group of calm, reasonable men who have tried everything to no avail and are left with no other option.
The second and last paragraph wraps everything up with a Three Musketeers moment where they pledge “…our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor…”, everything a man at that time would consider valuable.
The best known phrase, on the right “to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is taken for granted today, but is quite remarkable when examined closely. Pursuing happiness is the one zeroed in on, but doesn’t mean what people think it does. The modern interpretation would probably be that if a person wants to eat pizza for dinner everyday, they have a perfect right to do so. That actually trivializes the meaning of happiness, which is different things to different people. To enlarge upon it and return to the original intent, it is to celebrate the individual, to allow each person to follow their talents or leanings, even if that wasn’t in the hereditary road map. For most of human history, a person was a cog in a community, their individual value was not considered or even thought of. The Enlightenment, that aptly named intellectual movement, declared that each person had merit unto themselves. The Enlightenment also explains the “right to Life” here, as it considered that there are certain rights given to humans by God, which George III was not respecting. Probably because he was still stuck in the mind set of the Divine Rights of Kings, rather than his subjects.
The whole thing is quite an inflammatory document and the chutzpah of the revolutionary leaders is amazing, especially when one realizes the odds against their victory. The leaders of the movement were exceptionally brilliant, especially Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the proclamation. About one fourth of his original draft was cut, most notably a long screed against slavery(which I’d like to read). The 28 signers of the Declaration were doing a very dangerous deed, but because of their success, it inspired oppressed nations all over the globe and is still doing so, hundreds of years later.

To read the text of the Declaration of Independence, please go  here .

13 comments on “musings on the American Declaration of Independence

  1. annebrooke
    July 2, 2012

    Fascinating stuff, Jackie – thanks for this. I’d love to see that cut draft too!

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Hilary
    July 2, 2012

    What an interesting piece, Jackie! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read the Declaration of Independence because it is part of my history too. I’m off now to put that right. I enjoyed your commentary on Happiness – enlightening! (aptly).

  3. Christine Harding
    July 2, 2012

    That was interesting, I’ve never read it either, but I would like too. I guess it’s one of those documents we all know of, without actually knowing much about.

  4. Christine Harding
    July 2, 2012

    That should be ‘to’, not ‘too’. I don’t know how that happened. It’s a mistake that really, really irritates me. I blame the computer.

  5. lizfenwick
    July 2, 2012

    Great blog post…I haven’t read it in years but had read it many times. Brilliant to have it brought to my attention again.
    lx

  6. Mrs. Higgins
    July 2, 2012

    I was in Colonial Williamsburg, VA two years ago on July 4th where they re-enacted the reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was a very moving experience on one I will never forget.

  7. Kate
    July 2, 2012

    That was great. We ought to do Magna Carta, foxes!

  8. Jackie
    July 2, 2012

    Thanks everyone! I should have put a link to the text at the end for those who wanted to read it and have done so now. Sorry.

  9. Christine Harding
    July 2, 2012

    Wow, that’s strong stuff Jackie… they’d have been marked men if they hadn’t won! Please do Magna Carta, Foxes – I was brought up in Egham, which is where Runnymede is, where Magna Carta was signed (not an island like some people claim) and I’ve always been interested in it… you’ve missed the anniversary though, it was last month.

  10. Pingback: Remember September 3rd and Happy Fourth « Accidental Author

  11. Martine Frampton
    July 4, 2012

    My dad went to visit family in America in the early 70’s and bought back a copy which hung on the toilet wall for the entire of my childhood (it still hangs in their downstairs loo), so I am pretty familiar with it. I remember trying to decipher some of the more unreadable signatures but never read it all the way through. It is certainly an ambitious document on which to found a nation. As you say there has been a lot of interpretation of it’s sentiments that allows both people and politicians to make it mean what they want it to mean.

  12. fauquet
    July 4, 2012

    Welcome analysis. Thanks Jackie.

  13. Mark Tipton
    November 23, 2012

    I am only now getting around to posting the start of what will be many historical documents, but this one did strike me as relevant here. The section where he rants against slavery is as follows

    he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce:11 and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

    Well worth reading though the most common “argument” I ever get in place of an actual discussion from those that believe the old, fat white slave owner theory is “I don’t believe it” … mind you, these are the same ones that tell me because the Democrat Socialists of America and the American Communist Party proudly display the seventy some-odd members of our representative republic that are their members, that these two organizations are now part of the vast right wing conspiracy …

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