The Declaration of Independence


This Friday 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 Americans whine about FEMA not coming quickly enough to the rescue, demand bailouts for those who took out home loans they could not afford, complain about Congress and the president letting gasoline prices soar, cheer a candidate who talks about the nation in collectivist terms, and are ready to raise taxes on everyone else.

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 upward of 40 percent.

We plan to reprint the Declaration of Independence Friday on the editorial page. But I must wonder if 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"?

 

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.

 

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