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.
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 .