Some today don’t even know what the 4th of July means
The 4th of July is just a date; Independence Day is the holiday when we celebrate our independence from tyranny. Most Americans know words and phrases from the Declaration. But do we still know why Americans felt compelled to declare independence from Great Britain?
Following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, North Carolina was the first colony to declare independence in May. Congress was still hopeful that the breach between Great Britain and the colonies could be healed and so instead of following North Carolina’s lead, Congress instead drafted the Olive Branch Petition to the king. It was rejected.
Finally, in June 1776, a committee was formed to draft a declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft and the Congress, assembled as a committee of the whole, revised it and cut its length by about a third. A resolution of independence was passed on July 2nd; the Declaration approved on July 4th.
Where did Jefferson get the ideas and words that make up the Declaration? While there is a lot written about the process of writing the Declaration of Independence, little is taught these days about the ideas. In 1825 Jefferson wrote,
Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
What then was the American mind in 1776? The historical record is clear. Perhaps the best book on the subject is The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, written by Bernard Bailyn in 1967 and garnering both a Pulitzer and a Bancroft Prize. Examining over 400 documents from the Colonial period in a previous project, Bailyn distilled their arguments in Ideological Origins.
As revealed by their writings, the colonists had four reasons for rebellion.
First, they feared the loss of freedom of religion. Many had left England because of persecution by the Church of England, the official church with the king as its head. They had colonial charters which guaranteed freedom of religion, but events in England in the mid-18th century convinced them that the Church wanted to extend its authority to the colonies. Many of the colonies has established (i.e., official) churches. In Virginia, for example, the established church was the Anglican Church. Many colonial Anglicans, including Patrick Henry, opposed this.
This is the real meaning of “no Establishment of religion” in the First Amendment: no official state-sponsored religion. It’s bad for religious freedom. The so-called “wall of separation” has no basis in either Colonial thinking or the Constitution; it is an invention of the 20th century.
Second, they became increasingly under the control of too many officers of the crown, through which the king was replacing the authority of the colonial legislatures. These legislatures were viewed as the legitimate representatives of the people. There are numerous complaints about this in the Declaration—one third of the long train of abuses involve arbitrary laws, and the abuse of power with respect to the rights of the legislatures and the people.
These rights were granted to the Colonies in their charters but the colonists also relied on the traditional rights of Englishmen, as given in the Magna Carta (which is 900 years old this year) and the Bill of Rights of 1688. Increasingly, however, the colonists began to favor the natural rights argument of John Locke: that individual rights come from the Creator, not government. They predate government and therefore government cannot legitimately take them away. We read this in the Declaration’s most famous line:
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…
The third complaint was the subversion of the judiciary by the Crown. Five of the 27 abuses involve judicial powers, from denial of trial by jury to making the judges dependent on the Crown for their tenure and their salaries. It was to combat these abuses that the Constitution established an independent judiciary.
Finally, the fourth complaint—the last straw—was the stationing of armed troops in the colonies, beginning in Boston in 1768. Four of the complaints refer to the king’s stationing of troops and using foreign mercenaries in the colonies. The colonies had a strong aversion to standing armies. In times of crisis and war they called up the militia. They were highly incensed by the king’s use of troops to enforce his illegal laws. That’s why we have the Third Amendment and why until World War I we had a very small standing army, relying instead on state militias.
None of these general categories is “taxation without representation.” Taxes certainly played a role, but they are part of the larger issue of whether the king or even the Parliament had the authority to make and enforce the laws they did—including the taxing authority.
The Declaration of Independence remains to this day the statement of our founding principles. More than two centuries later, we remain the only country in history founded on principles, not on ethnicity, or a king or a ruling class. It’s what makes us exceptional.
The long train of abuses remains an indictment of tyrannical power. An Executive making arbitrary rules without the consent of the legislature; a corrupt legislature passing unconstitutional laws; a judiciary not independent but political, not judging by the constitution but making new law: these abuses of power are as much a threat to our Republic today as they were to the colonies then.