A Meditation on Liberty and Independence
As you’re celebrating our nation’s birth, let’s take a look back at what makes our founding special and unique. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Washington started something in 1776 that we haven’t yet completed.
Welcome to the How to Run for Office Podcast from My Campaign Coach!
I hope y’all are having a fantastic Independence day! Growing up, my family and several others in our home-school group would annually recite the Declaration of Independence as part of our town’s 4th of July celebration. It’s always been a holiday that I’ve loved, even though my physician father rarely let us blow anything up, and today’s podcast is a sort of meditation on the significance of the day. No matter how much you’ve studied the document, you’ll either learn something new or hear about the Declaration’s impact in a new way.
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[00:00] Introduction and Special Announcements
[03:16] A Meditation on Liberty and Independence
[10:38] Reading of the Declaration of Independence
Transcript of Podcast:
One of my annual traditions is to watch the first few episodes of the HBO Miniseries, John Adams. The first two installments of that series chronicle future President Adams’ transmogrification from little-known country lawyer to one of his nation’s great Fathers.
The writers no doubt took literary license, the degree to which I haven’t seriously investigated, but based on my reading of Adams’ and the Revolutionary era, the broad strokes are consistent.
My favorite part is the moment the vote for independence is tallied and passage is announced. After years of oppression, months of secrecy and weeks of heated debate, we can be forgiven for assuming that fist pumping and triumphant shouts would concuss Independence Hall.
Instead, the entire room appears shellshocked. The gravity of what they have just done nearly overwhelms them. Each man just put his own head, as well as potentially that of the rest of his countrymen on the chopping block.
The juxtaposition of sentiment is highlighted in the letter John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, two days after passage, on July 3rd, 1776. In fact, the first two pages are largely a lament upon the fact that adoption of independence took months longer than it should have and that it might now come too late. His pessimism, which seems to be a frequent characteristic of Adams’ letters to Abigail, was overtaken by excitement towards the end of the letter. Reading from it now, he said,
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and blood and Treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even altho we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.
Whatever periodic doubts the Founders may have held regarding America’s ability to overcome the indomitable army of Great Britain, their resolve was complete. Just a few days after the signing of the Declaration, General Howe, commander of British forces offered a pardon to American political leaders. He rejected the offer saying,
It is impossible we should think of submission to a government that has with the most wanton barbarity and cruelty burnt our defenceless towns in the midst of Winter, excited the savages to massacre our farmers and our slaves to murder their masters, and is even now bringing foreign mercenaries to deluge our settlements with blood. These atrocious injuries have extinguished every remaining spark of affection for that parent country we once held so dear.
That truncated description of King George’s abuses can be seen closely mirrored in the draft and final text of the Declaration itself.
While most of us have heard the document read, and some have read it, few have studied it. The uniqueness of it is hard to overstate. Civil wars and revolutions were hardly unheard of at that point in world history, but none had been so deliberately considered or politely announced.
While the original Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance and the United States Constitution are all very instructive documents regarding our nation’s founding and the intent of her Fathers, the Declaration of Independence holds a special wisdom.
Within the lines of the Declaration, Jefferson laid out the thesis for a new type of government. He brought the ideals of the Magna Carta far further towards their complete realization. The basis of our rights, purpose of government and setting the bar for justifying a revolution all surround the specific causes for their separation.
I say that Jefferson moved those principles forward, because he didn’t complete the work. In his original draft of the Declaration, he went much further towards recognizing and ending the sin of slavery. As the final item in his list of King George’s tyrannical acts in that first draft, Jefferson wrote,
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and 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 and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this excrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of the distinguished to 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.
In so clearly describing slavery, it was Jefferson’s intent to capitalize on the unique moment of independence to begin the end of the slave trade in America. While this language was excised in order to gain the support of southern colonies, Jefferson later worked to consistently undermine the slave trade.
No national sin so clouds our nation’s history as that of slavery. And it’s hard for me to understand how a Founder like Jefferson could advocate abolition while owning humans himself. Whatever his justification and complicity in our nation’s original sin, their efforts towards full franchise for the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence should be remembered and applauded. And while the words were never adopted as he intended, Jefferson was far from alone in his sentiments.
While it can be easily argued, if not proven, that the Declaration would never have passed with the anti-slavery language intact, that failure marks one of the greatest missed opportunities in American history. The fight for abolition continued through every major evolution of our nation’s growth. It culminated in the sundering of a nation and deaths of hundreds of thousands. The repercussions of those failures continue to frequently divide our country to this day.
History can’t be changed, but there is no moment in history I’d more happily edit than to include that passage in the Declaration’s final text.
Whatever failures our country’s leaders and citizens have made, and there have been plenty, our nation stands as the greatest experiment in self-government in the world’s history. No nation has so long or so fully recognized equality, liberty and freedom as we have. And no people should work harder to ensure that those self-evident truths are more fully realized each day.
Much work remains to be done and it is incumbent upon each of us to pursue its completion.
I’ll close with this reading of our nation’s birth notice:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, 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 shewn, 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 of 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 endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations 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 harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
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 neighbouring 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 Legislatures, 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 compleat 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 endeavoured to 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 attentions to our Brittish 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.
Also published on Medium.