Today we celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with fireworks and picnics.
But there is another day worthy of a passing mention. That is July 6, the day the declaration was first reprinted on the front page of The Pennsylvania Evening Post. In the following weeks, by order of Congress, at least 30 newspapers reprinted the Declaration of Independence, spreading its simple words and its audacious act of treason against the crown. It was a document for the people, carried to the people by the press.
At the time, the colonies were under virtual blockade and the American Army was vastly outnumbered and often in retreat.
Librarian Robin Shields recounts that when the Boston Gazette published the declaration it carried next to it an advertisement: “Cash given for clean Cotton and Linen RAGS, at the Printing-Office in Watertown.” Most paper was imported from England, and the printer was seeking rags with which to make paper.
In a letter to Congress on July 9, Gen. George Washington reported how his troops were to mark the news of the Declaration of Independence: “The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at Six OClock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.”
In a letter the next day he reported that British deserters were telling him a fleet with massive reinforcements was expected to arrive in New York any day. The situation was dire.
It was in this setting of uncertainty and imminent danger that our founding document was penned. How it fell to 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson to pen the first draft is a matter of some dispute, but I prefer the recollection of chief independence protagonist John Adams.
Years later, Adams recalled that he insisted Jefferson should write it, and Jefferson replied, “Why?”
“Reasons enough,” answered Adams.
“What can be your reasons?”
So Adams bluntly stated, “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”
Most of which, of course, was nonsense.
Jefferson borrowed liberally from the great minds of the day, unabashedly paraphrasing George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights: “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.”
Jefferson edited it to the more succinct “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In 1825, in a letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Jefferson looked back on those days and his role in writing the founding document. He recalled his motivation and purpose:
“When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of … (but) to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. 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 …”
Today 52 percent of Americans, a majority, receive some kind of government check. Federal regulations cost $2 trillion a year. Entitlement programs are going broke. Debt is ballooning. Foreign powers neither trust us or fear us. Morality and ethics are situational. The government enforces only those laws it wishes to enforce. Politicians lie, cheat and steal without fear of facing any consequences. The media are largely toothless and growing weaker.
Even when the voters revolt and elect people they think are fiscal conservatives, the elected officials raise taxes and do nothing to rein in runaway spending on government programs and employee pay and benefits.
At the time of the Revolution, it is estimated the typical tax burden — with or without representation — was 20 cents per capita per year at a time when annual earnings were somewhere between $60 and $100. Today the total tax burden is more than 40 percent.
I wonder whether we have lost that American mind-set that Jefferson cherished. How many of us are still willing for the sake of true liberty to pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”?
Even the meaning of the word liberty has changed from an inalienable right to something granted by the all-powerful government.
“Our Constitution — like the Declaration of Independence before it — was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from — not provided by — the State. Today’s decision casts that truth aside. In its haste to reach a desired result, the majority misapplies a clause focused on ‘due process’ to afford substantive rights, disregards the most plausible understanding of the ‘liberty’ protected by that clause, and distorts the principles on which this Nation was founded. Its decision will have inestimable consequences for our Constitution and our society,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the gay marriage ruling two years ago.
We’ve strayed far since 1776.
A version of this first appeared in 2015.