On July 4th, 1776, a most remarkable document, was delivered to the world by a group of discontented colonists in North America. The Declaration of Independence was a serious affront to Great Britain, the wealthiest & most powerful nation in the world. The authors and signers of this document were variously celebrated as heroes and criminals, but the Declaration itself stands as a clear and dramatic statement of what is right and just in government. It proposed a republican government founded in the collective rights of the people, based on their authority alone, and beholden to them. And so here is what one of the most significant documents in human history said when it was read aloud in Philadelphia for the first time 233 years ago.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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; That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. 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 if 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.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislature.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their acts of pretended legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislature, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with Circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us and has endeavored bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.
Nor have We been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.
We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends!
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.
The first signer was John Hancock, who is said to have signed his name so prominently so that the King of England and ministers could see it without their glasses. He was from Massachusetts and considered to have been the showiest man in the Congress. He was a wealthy man and very much a supporter of the revolutionary efforts of the 1770s. Here follows the states and men who pledged their lives to this grand experiment at great personal risk to their property and lives:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
William M. Floyd, Phillip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas Mckean
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Junior, Thomas Lynch, Junior, Arthur Middleton
Richard Stocton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton.
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carrollton
George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
It is from this document that our nation continues its long journey into the twenty- first century. At times our nation has been on the wrong side of history, as have many nations. Whether it be the peculiar institution of slavery and its associated racism that has followed or our treatment of Native Americans or immigrants, our actions have sometimes been shameful as we look back from the year 2009.
However we are also a nation that has the oldest surviving constitution in the world and we remain a free people. We have given the world some of its great men including Chief Seattle, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King and Colin Powell and some its great women including Sagajawea, Abigal Adams, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks.
In 2009 there are problems to be sure but we are better nation than we were more than 200 years ago. We continue to aspire towards the promise of the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence - "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."
The Declaration's lasting influence is that the values it expresses have taken on expanded meanings with the passage of time. Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal but at that time few thought that women, blacks and Native Americans had the same rights. They did not vote, hold office or attend town meetings. Jefferson would later write women were "too wise to wrinkle their forehead with politics." We feel very differently today. Slavery would ultimately be undone because Abraham Lincoln thought that the declaration expressed the highest truths in history. He regarded equal rights as an ideal to strive towards. Martin Luther King believed that the declaration spoke anew to each generation.
Every election, every protest movement, every redressing of injustice, every debate in Congress reminds us that we remain as someone said so long ago the world's last best hope. It was then a remarkable document and remains so even to this day.