Why We Celebrate the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident … .” Penned over 240 years ago these words sound a clarion call for freedom that transcends time and place. The document signed in Philadelphia is held so sacred that it was one of three national treasures sent to Fort Knox for safe-keeping during World War II. Every Fourth of July it is recited in town assemblies across America. But why do we care so much about a faded piece of parchment?1
It’s America’s Birth Certificate. At first glance, our reverence for the Declaration seems misplaced. Its lofty language of equality has no binding legal effect. It didn’t even make us independent — that required seven years of hard fighting and diplomacy. Had those efforts failed, the Declaration would be remembered, if at all, as the curious scribbling of troublemakers who almost certainly would have been executed for treason.
But the Declaration is significant. It is the first document to refer to our country as the United States of America. And it marks the first time a group of citizens successfully dared to decree a wholly new country and insist upon equality at the table of nations with kings and princes who viewed their authority as conferred by God. But perhaps most importantly, it articulates basic human values that all people aspire to. Its enduring lessons have inspired such diverse people as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Ho Chi Minh.
It Sparked Flames of Independence. History is filled with uprisings where one group sought to overthrow another and rule in his place. But Americans wanted to create a wholly new country where citizens ruled themselves through elected representatives. This novel experiment piqued the interest of kings and commoners alike.
News of the Declaration reached London on August 10, 1776. By month’s end word had spread to Dublin, Madrid, Leiden and Vienna. An alarmed Austrian Empress Maria Theresa advised George III of her “hearty desire to see the restoration of obedience in every quarter of his dominions.” Meanwhile her censors tried to keep the news from her people.
Her subjects in what is now Belgium followed the news of victories in America and reflected on their own lack of political rights. In 1789 they revolted and proclaimed their own independence. Their Manifeste de la province de Flandre closely tracks a French translation of our own Declaration.
Belgium’s independence was short-lived, but the embers of liberty lit in Philadelphia and fanned by the revolutionary fervor sweeping France couldn’t be extinguished. In 1804 Haiti declared independence, followed over the next two decades by other Latin American countries. Today more than half of the members of the United Nations have a founding document similar to our Declaration.
It Is a Manifesto of Human Rights. Declaring independence, however, says nothing about political equality. For example, South Carolina seceded from the Union and apartheid Southern Rhodesian left Britain with instruments broadly following the outline of our own Declaration, but omitting any mention of self-evident truths.
It is this language that places our own Declaration alongside Magna Carta in the Pantheon of Charters of Liberty. After the Revolution, Lafayette hung a frame in his Paris library with a copy of the Declaration displayed on one side. The empty half, he told visitors, was for France’s own declaration of rights. Later Lafayette and other members of the French National Assembly consulted with Thomas Jefferson while drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Back home the Declaration’s language of equality came under attack as discord over slavery intensified. John C. Calhoun asserted there was “not a word of truth to the statement that all men were created equal” and John Randolph of Virginia said it was a “pernicious falsehood.” Calhoun argued that the Declaration’s statements of equality were not necessary to its purpose.
Abraham Lincoln answered that these statements were all the more significant because their inclusion was not necessary. Speaking at Independence Hall in 1861 he said he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”6 Eulogizing Lincoln in 1865, Senator Charles Sumner reviewed Lincoln’s repeated reliance on the promise of the Declaration and his role in making it a reality.7
Speaking shortly after World War II about the risks of tyranny and the looming iron curtain, Winston Churchill warned:
“[W]e must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which … find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”8
Half a world away, Ho Chi Minh began his speech declaring Vietnamese independence by noting that the immortal statement "[a]ll men are created equal … was made in the Declaration of Independence … this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”10 Ironically it was the same Ho Chi Minh who led North Vietnam twenty years later during the Vietnam War.
- Information for this article comes from Pauline Maier, American Scripture, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1997); David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, Harvard University Press (2007); and Henry Fairlie, What Europeans Thought of Our Revolution, The New Republic, originally published July 18, 1988, published on-line July 4, 2014.
- Facsimile created in 1823 from the original Declaration of Independence. Image from Wikipedia. The original document on view at the National Archives is faded and difficult to read. You can see it on the Archives’ web site.
- Detail from painting by Friedrich Heinrich Füger in the collection of the Belvedere Museum, Vienna.
- Mexican Declaration of Independence (1821). Image from Wikipedia.
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier. Image from Wikipedia.
- Address at Independence Hall while on route to Washington to assume the presidency, February 22, 1861. Text on-line at Abraham Lincoln Online.
- The Promises of the Declaration of Independence, eulogy on Abraham Lincoln given by Charles Sumner before the municipal authorities of the City of Boston on June 1, 1865. Published by Ticknor and Fields. Available on-line at Archive.org web site.
- From Sinews of Peace, speech by Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Available on-line at The History Guide.
- Ho Chi Minh in 1945. Image from Wikipedia.
- Declaration of Independent of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, September 2, 1945. Text on-line at History Matters web site.
This article originally appeared in our free semi-monthly newsletter. To receive future issues, please add your name to the subscription list.