On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. However, the legal separation from England actually happened on July 2, 1776, when the delegates to the congress approved Virginia native Richard Henry Lee’s resolution stating the thirteen colonies were “free and independent States,” no longer part of the British Empire. After the delegates voted for independence, a Committee of Five drafted the Declaration of Independence explaining their decision. As most know, Thomas Jefferson was the principal author. The delegates debated and revised its wording, finally approving the Declaration of Independence on July 4.
Examining the Declaration of Independence
The Second Continental Congress selected Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston to serve on a committee responsible for preparing a declaration of independence. Subsequently, the committee gave Jefferson the job of producing a draft document for its review. After Jefferson submitted his draft, the delegates spent two days debating the document and made wide-ranging changes before accepting it. The delegates did not alter the preamble. Jefferson was not pleased with several of the revisions.
Jefferson relied on numerous sources as he thought about and wrote the draft. He was influenced by English philosopher and physician John Locke who is considered one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. Locke first considered the ideas of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” in his Two Treatises on Government (1689). The Declaration of Independence’s preamble summarizes a universal philosophy of government, justifying revolution. According to Stephen Lucas, “The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence,” it capsulizes in five sentences-202-words what it took John Locke thousands of words to explain in his Second Treatise of Government.” Other influences on Jefferson included his friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette and Age of Enlightenment French philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. In their frequently censored writings, these philosophers promoted the idea that men were born free and equal.
On our side of the world, Jefferson used the July 1774 Fairfax County Resolves written by George Mason and George Washington. Among other things, the resolves called for an end to trade with Great Britain, including an end to the importation of slaves. Jefferson tried in vain to include in the Declaration of Independence a denunciation of British support of the slave trade. That section read:
He [King George II] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and 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….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 restrain this execrable commerce…..
His attack on slavery was just too much for the other delegates. This was the most significant part eliminated from the final document. The delegates replaced it with a somewhat vague passage about King George’s provocation of “domestic insurrections among us.”
Another document Jefferson used was the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights written by Mason. It affected Jefferson’s thinking as seen in the preambles:
Virginia’s Declaration of Rights Section 1: That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Declaration of Independence Preamble (excerpt): 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.– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Colonists thought they were equal to British subjects in England and deserved the same liberties. When Parliament passed acts violating their “inalienable rights” and controlled the colonies without the “consent of the governed,” many colonists concluded they were living under tyranny, not freedom. The Declaration of Independence intended to reestablish equal rights by rejecting Great Britain’s domination.
What did Jefferson mean by “all men are created equal” and have“certain unalienable Rights,”? Some interpret “all men are created equal” to include all humanity while others think Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers meant to include only all free, white property-owning men.
When John Adams wrote his daughter about the celebrations in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, “The wharves and shores, were lined with a vast concourse of people, all shouting and huzzaing, in a manner which gave great joy to every friend to this country, and the utmost terror and dismay to every lurking tory” were there any enslaved people there? If there, were they equally celebrating? No doubt we know the answers because for centuries enslaved African Americans and other cultural minorities were deprived of equality and civil rights.
People like suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, President Abraham Lincoln, and Civil rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (to name a few) used the Declaration of Independence to demand equality for women and African Americans, seizing the “historical and moral high ground.” Other groups have also been denied the equality promoted by the Declaration of Independence. Until the Fourteenth Amendment (July 9, 1868), African Americans were exempt from citizenship and equal protection. The Chinese Exclusion Act (May 6, 1882) denied admission to these immigrants. During World War II, Japanese Americans were interned in camps. Women could not vote until the Nineteenth Amendment (August 18, 1920). Central American and Mexican children are separated from their families and detained at the borders. The list goes on.
And now in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement (which has its own history) “all men are created equal” and have“certain unalienable Rights” is again being expanded. African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos – all people should be treated equally under the law and protected from police brutality. Nobody should have to experience what Puerto Rican writer Jaquira Díaz described in a recent Time magazine article as the “a trauma response…when encountering the police-anxiety, the urge to empty our bladders.”
In June, Senator Tim Kaine, a civil rights lawyer, wrote in “Dismantling the painful architecture of discrimination,” op-ed that appeared in several Virginia newspapers:
For centuries, our nation has preached equality as our cardinal virtue while burdening African Americans with systemic inequality. The horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, together with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on both the health and economic conditions of African Americans, have laid bare the continuing challenges of racism in America. Racism in this country is not an accident. Local, state, and federal government policy—enforced by our courts—formed the architecture of inequality and though, in very recent history, some racist practices have ended, our government has never been made accountable for these longstanding practices or been forced to uproot that which it so carefully built over multiple generations.
Although there has been progress, as Senator Kaine admits, more work is clearly needed.
In his 2013 second inaugural address, President Barack Obama said we are on “a never ending journey.”
We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea [Italics added] articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: “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.” Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. [Italics added]
We must try to secure that freedom for all of us as we continue that “never ending journey.”