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‘American Scripture’

 

 

Fourth of July Fireworks

Flickr photo courtesy of JRyle79

 

Groundbreaking document reason for Fourth of July

Article published July 2, 2008

The fate of the original 13 Colonies was decided in a stuffy, humid room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia 232 years ago this week.

For years, the colonists had put up with King George III sending officers “to harass our people, and eat out their substances,” “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing taxes on us without our Consent.”

A group of 55 men — including two of the first three presidents of the United States — laid out these grievances and others in one document they signed and distributed to the new states.

This document, declaring that the “United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent states,” is the reason Americans have cookouts and light fireworks on the Fourth of July.

This document is the Declaration of Independence.

The common man’s right

“I’ve heard scholars call the Declaration of Independence ‘American scripture,’ and I would agree with them,” says Bill Svelmoe, an associate professor of history at Saint Mary’s College who specializes in American history.

The document changed the course of human history, he says.

“At the time, they felt it was very necessary to throw out an explanation of why they were doing what they were doing. These were all English people, members of the English political system, and to denationalize yourself was a huge step.”

Before the Colonies challenged the authority of the monarchy, clear distinctions were made between people, Svelmoe said.

“Regular folks would never have dreamed that they could become something greater than they (were).”

The common people took note, however, after the Declaration of Independence was written, signed and adopted by the Second Continental Congress, Svelmoe says, even if the aristocratic Colonists did not want them to.

“The folks who wrote it, the Jeffersons and the Adams(es), were not particularly thrilled with the forces they unleashed,” he says. “They hoped the common people would continue to defer to their betters.”

David Stefancic, an associate professor of history at Saint Mary’s who specializes in European history, agrees with Svelmoe that the aristocratic Colonists who signed the declaration didn’t necessarily want the Colonies to become a unified nation where everyone was equal.

The people in the Colonies were not equal before or after the declaration was signed, even if the first line of the preamble of the document says, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

” ‘Nation’ had a very limited definition,” Stefancic says. “It didn’t mean everybody; it meant a few landholders, British landowners, people like that.”

The ambiguity of including everyone but not completely meaning it — especially when it came to the subject of slavery — is one of the things most people don’t know or forget about the declaration, Svelmoe says.

“There was a deliberate way in which the (signers) refused to deal with slavery when there was a sentiment to deal with it at that time,” he says, citing Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to denounce the slave trade in the first draft of the declaration, a passage that was eliminated before the document was ratified. “In order to get Southerners on board, they neglected that.”

Although the Declaration of Independence wasn’t perfect in offering freedom to all persons in the United States, both professors agree that it provided the foundation for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“It was the basis that moved the Colonists towards the Constitution,” Stefancic says. “It was a general statement of rights for the individual versus the government.”

The Constitution and Bill of Rights build on that statement of rights, spelling everything out, Svelmoe says.

“There were a lot of people at the time who didn’t even think the Bill of Rights was necessary. A lot of people thought you didn’t need a Bill of Rights if you had faith in what was stated in the Declaration of Independence. Though, of course, the Bill of Rights has proved very important in history,” he says.

Both think Americans generally understand that July Fourth is the anniversary of the signing of the declaration and that is why there are celebrations.

“In a very loose sense, from being reminded of it way back in grade school, they probably do,” Stefancic says.

Svelmoe thinks it would be hard to find an American without a basic understanding of what the day is about because the Declaration of Independence has stayed relevant throughout history.

“The first couple of sentences expresses a foundational statement of all human aspiration and longing,” he says.

“Liberation movements have referred to the Declaration of Independence. The early feminists referred to the declaration when they were beginning their movements.”

Stefancic can see the document at play in the United States even today.

“All you have to do is turn on the radio and listen to Mike Gallagher or Rush Limbaugh. They’re arguing the same thing: Will (Barack) Obama do this, will (John) McCain do that in regards to the rights that were set down in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” he says.

Connecting to teens’ lives

For teenagers to understand the importance of the document, educators have to connect the Declaration of Independence and today’s world, says Mike Breske, head of the social sciences department at Mishawaka High School.

“I think what I’m finding out is that if we can tie something historical like this document into something that is contemporary, they understand it,” he says. “If you’re dealing with it from strictly a historical perspective, you could lose them.”

He tries to make his students more aware of the important roles the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July played in the history of the United States, Breske says, but it is hard because the Fourth falls during summer vacation.

“I think a lot of these major holidays, kids — especially the younger kids — don’t understand the significance of the holiday. Obviously, it’s tough with us not being in the regular school year, so I try to (explain the significance of ) Veterans Day,” he says.

When his class does study the Declaration of Independence, though, Breske tries to communicate why it is still relevant today.

“One of the things I try to do in my classroom is talk about the fact that it became basically the model that was used for all societies that were looking to achieve freedom,” he says.

Breske uses the document to explain to his students why the United States is involved in events like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have a core belief that most people want to be free, and the declaration represents not only individual freedom, but also freedom from a societal perspective,” he says.

“They seem to get a little better grasp on that than if we looked at the document from a pure historical perspective.”

The Colonists dealt with six years of war after signing the Declaration of Independence, but because those 55 men stood up to the injustices of the British monarchy, the United States today has the “full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and things which Independent States my of right do.”

 

Post By Liz Harter (70 Posts)

Liz Harter has a degree in English Writing with a minor in Spanish from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She is an award winning journalist on the collegiate level with a strong background in journalism. She currently works in PR and is a social media autodidact Google+

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About the Author

Liz Harter has a degree in English Writing with a minor in Spanish from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She is an award winning journalist on the collegiate level with a strong background in journalism. She currently works in PR and is a social media autodidact Google+

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