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This 4th of July marks the 235 anniversary of America’s independence from British colonial rule.
The Continental Congress declared the 13 colonies free and independent states and absolved any allegiance from Great Britain.
However, just six months prior, this thought was inconceivable. Congress had previously met only to regress their grievances with the British government. What changed this and what did the Declaration bring forth?
Although fighting against the British broke out in April of 1775, most colonists still considered themselves British subjects wishing only to gain representation within the British Parliament. However growing hostility against the British continued as the fighting escalated and revolutionary rhetoric spread throughout the colonies. Then in January of 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published.
Paine’s stirring little pamphlet shot through the colonies like a lightning bolt. He directly attacked the colonist’s allegiance to the monarchy.
Previously most of the animosity was directed toward Parliament. However for Paine, King George III bore the responsibility for the malevolence toward the colonies.
Americans now had a scapegoat to address their grievances. Paine declared it was time for colonial independence: “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.”
As a result of Paine’s Common Sense, the Continental Congress met in June to decide the course of the colonies. One June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia produced a resolution stating: “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” The resolution was then debated and on July 2, 1776, the resolution formally passed as Congress officially broke from Great Britain and declared American independence.
John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail and degreed “July 2 will be the most memorial epoch in American history; it will be celebrated by succeeding Generations as the great anniversary Festival… the celebration should include a parade, games, and illuminations from one end of the country to the other.”
The Declaration of Independence was then formally adopted by Congress on July 4, the day everyone else besides John Adams celebrates American independence.
Yet our independence movement was different, it was unlike any other newly formed country in world history. Ours was born from a philosophical movement and not a simple power grab.
The Declaration of Independence, chiefly the work of Thomas Jefferson, was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.” No document since has so succinctly and so eloquently spelled out the spirit of America.
The remarkable sentiment of the Declaration is that it does not appeal to a certain group of Americans. Rather, it promotes and promises a universal standard of justice based on the equality of man (all humans). “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,…”
These rights of equality are attributed to God and are therefore timeless in expression and action.
These rights that the Declaration pursues are considered “natural rights.” Eighteenth century philosophers like John Locke wrote extensively on the natural laws of nature. It is those beliefs that create the foundation of the Declaration. This is why in the introduction the Declaration asserts the existence of “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
Although our country has not always been true to the principles of equality as prescribed in the Declaration, we have pursued then nonetheless. From the abolitionist movement to the women’s suffrage movement; from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, the moral authority and the principles in the Declaration of Independence have been used throughout our nation’s history in order to create a more perfect Union.
William McHugh teaches American history at the Lawrenceburg campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College.