The signers of the Declaration of Independence felt that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required them to explain why 13 thinly populated states clinging to the Atlantic coast should declare themselves independent of the world’s richest, most powerful empire.
And they did, in words every American of junior-high-school age and beyond knows — or should know: “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.”
These were radical, not to say heretical, ideas. In the monarchies of Europe and the empires of the East and Far East, man was patently not created equal — or else why would there be serfs and nobles? And happiness was a fortuitous, but by no means guaranteed, byproduct of an arduous daily life.
The lofty ideals of American independence are in the first two paragraphs of the declaration, which was formally adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The gritty realities behind the drive for independence are in the next 27 paragraphs, none of them longer than a single sentence.
These were grievances that clearly had been smoldering for some time. A colonial farmer headed off to a backbreaking day of work in the field likely did not have the time or energy to dwell on unalienable rights.
But if a British officer had shown up at his farmhouse door the night before, demanding that he and a half-dozen of the king’s soldiers be housed and fed, largely at the farmer’s expense, the farmer likely would have simmered with suppressed fury.
A too-strenuous objection to the behavior of his unwanted guests might find him hauled before a judge, dependent on the British crown for his office and salary, and exiled from the colonies.
Many of the demands in those 27 sentences presage the Constitution and its Bill of Rights: trial by jury; elected representatives; legislatures with meaningful powers; taxations with representation; and, to return to the soldiers, many of them mercenaries, civilian control of the military, at least in the colonies.
A respectable number of British intellectuals thought the upstart Continental Congress was right, but the British crown thought that any kind of reasonable accommodations, let alone offending powerful English merchants by allowing colonists to trade freely, was a sign of weakness.
Instead, Parliament passed a series of increasingly punitive laws, the “Intolerable Acts.” The colonists rebelled, and the war dragged on until the Peace of Paris in 1783.
The British thought they would have the last laugh, that George Washington, once he became president, would proclaim himself King George I. They were wrong — oh, so very wrong.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” won out, and we celebrate that victory of ideals every July 4. Happy Independence Day. Go celebrate. The Founding Fathers all but ordered you to.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.