Putting Politics Aside – We have a Republic to Save


Weekend Read: Born On The Fourth Of July

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutesThe Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.

Thomas Jefferson and the committee tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence worked on it the previous 17 days. The Continental Congress had appointed the Committee of Five—comprising Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston on June 11, 1776.

Jefferson completed the first draft as the lead author, on June 28, 1776. The committee made a few changes before presenting it to Congress on June 28. Congress debated and revised the document over the next few days, finally adopting it on July 4, 1776.

John Adams, writing to his wife Abagail, said the 4th should be celebrated with enthusiasm. He said it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn devotion to God Almighty. He wrote that the day should be celebrated with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Most of us will celebrate by taking an extended weekend, a cookout, or a sports event. We won’t be thinking much about the Declaration or the subsequent war, although we should be.

What was born was a great nation that day, but also the document that still defines us.

That birth, however, would prove painful. Adjusted for population, about 1% of the population would die in combat, as a result of disease, or at the hands of Native Americans allied with the British. Compare that with other wars: WWI-.11%, WWII- .32%.  Only The Civil War was worse at 2.1-2.5% of the population.

The Revolutionary War was in a sense our first Civil War, pitting loyalists and patriots, as well as mighty England.  It also touched off wild and destabilizing inflation. Without military victory, the Declaration would be lining for American coffins.

For America, the Declaration of Independence was the mission statement.  A new country, separate from England and monarchy, that would embrace a combination of Enlightenment ideals and Biblical teachings. The mission continues and likely will never be complete.

The Constitution that was to follow, after the failed experiment of the Articles of Confederation, became the business plan. It would be through the structure of the Constitution and its careful division of powers, a constitutional republic that guarded against the tyranny of the majority, and the tyranny of the minority, that was meant to carry out the goals of this great mission.

There was a great imperfection, the presence of slavery.  The Founders knew it, but the necessity of winning the War of Independence against the mightiest military power of the era, necessitated a compromise with Southern colonies. The possibility of the gallows or a musket ball can delay idealism for the sake of practicality, but the ideals were not forgotten.

Of the drafting committee, Jefferson and Livingston, owned slaves. Adams had strong anti-slavery views as did Abagail and never owned slaves. Roger Sherman did not own slaves. Franklin did so briefly but soon was a leader in the anti-slavery movement.  So, despite what your high school teacher told you, not everyone involved in the Declaration was a slave owner. Three of the five is not bad for the era.

What is remarkable is not that some owned slaves. That was a standard condition throughout the British Empire, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and among American Indian tribes both in North and South America. Most white immigrants came over as indentured servants but it is true blacks were subject to chattel slavery.

Nevertheless, the Lockian phrase “life, liberty, and property”, was modified (some historians say it was Franklin’s insistence, others say it was Jefferson alone), to read “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The reason: slaves at the time were property, and the authors of the Declaration did not want to enshrine slaveholding as property.

What was remarkable was that those who owned or grew up around a universally practiced institution, operating for thousands of years, would deliberately set down words and concepts that they knew would undermine the concept that one man has a claim on another man’s labor and his life.

To suggest all men are created equal before the law and God was an outlandish and radical statement at the time of monarchy and class distinction based on heredity. It is even controversial today in DEI programs!

Slavery and rigid class distinctions existed everywhere else. As Abraham Lincoln said in his 1854 Peoria speech, saying all men are equal had no practical utility in the struggle to the death with England.  Why then was it there? Because the Founders believed in it and felt it would shape the future, as it surely did.

From the perspective of today, it does not seem nearly enough. Many Progressives today accuse the Founders of betraying the worthy goals of the document. They forget what a stretch it was at the time to say such things and defy a King who could have them drawn and quartered.

More puzzling, is that those who mock the effort to adhere to the ideals, respond not by reaffirming the Declaration, but by openly rejecting those same ideals and endorsing a modern form of slavery in the guises of socialism, collectivism, communism, and racism. Unlike their critics, the Founders did their best to implement the ideals under severe wartime circumstances where victory was hardly assured. Today’s critics reject these ideals from a position of opulence, comfort, and ignorance. They bask in the freedom created by others and wish to overthrow the system that protects their ability to criticize others.

To say they are ungrateful hardly touches the depths of their perfidy.

What is worse – a person who believes in ideals and falls short in their execution, or ungrateful moderns who reject the ideals altogether and promote tyranny of another sort from the comfort of their air-conditioned classrooms and tenured salaries?

The Declaration is an amalgam of Enlightenment input from John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and others. Also in the mix are Judeo-Christian views and the experience of Holland.

From Locke, we received the ideas of natural rights: life, liberty, and property. Rights were inherent and did not come from the government and cannot be taken away by the government.

From Montesquieu, the separation of powers and the need to deal with man’s constant effort to enslave others through the abuse of power.

From Rousseau, the ideas of “social contract”, and that government’s legitimacy stems from the consent of the governed.

Algernon Sidney contributed to the ideas that undermined monarchy and promoted the right to self-government.

Some modern historians emphasize the input of these “enlightenment” sources and leave out the religious input.  That is a grave error.

Recent scholarship found in such books as Created Equal and the Hebrew Republic notes not only the profound influence the Bible had on the Founders, but more remarkably, the influence it had on the so-called secular Enlightenment authors the Founders were reading.

Besides the intellectual influence, there was considerable direct religious input, especially from the Scottish Enlightenment.  John Witherspoon, a Scottish-American Presbyterian minister, was recruited by Benjamin Franklin and became President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) from 1768 to 1794. Under his leadership, the college became a training ground for many future American leaders.

Witherspoon was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an influential educator, whose teachings in moral philosophy, religion, and politics left a lasting impact on his students, many of whom played crucial roles in the founding of the United States.

The Hebrew Bible taught that all men were children of God, and therefore all equal before his eyes.  It too was a revolutionary document in its day. It is pretty difficult to believe in equality on any other basis. Also, the idea of a covenant, an agreement among people to establish a government supported the idea that a people have a moral right to both create and overthrow a government.

The Founders were steeped in Hebraic Christianity, and many spoke Hebrew. Most took their Bible seriously. The Exodus story was important, and it was so-called skeptics like Franklin who proposed that Exodus should be the source of the great seal of the new country.

Other “skeptics” like Jefferson also took the Bible into his thinking, even penning his book titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” commonly referred to as the “Jefferson Bible.” In this work, Jefferson extracted passages from the New Testament to create a version of the teachings of Jesus that focused on his moral philosophy and ethical teachings. True, it reflected his personal views and he omitted some of the miracle stories. Still, you have to be pretty serious about religion to write a whole book on the subject of Jesus and his teachings.

Little known is that some of the wording also comes from a prior declaration of independence, that of Holland. This was the Act of Abjuration signed July 26, 1581, during the 80-year war to gain independence from Spain.  The “failures and abuses” section of the US Declaration, justifying separation by force of arms, reads much like that of Holland centuries before.

In terms of religious input, there is this famous and important passage.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The phrase “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” were important concepts at the time arguing that rights come from God, that regardless of theological distinctions among religious sects, there is a supreme being who has created a logical universe with universal moral laws applying to all men, at all times. Rights come from God and cannot be taken away by other men.

Two of the great authors, and later Presidents, Jefferson and Adams, while political opponents, remained friends for the rest of their lives. How about that for an example of bipartisanship?  Remarkably, both of them died within hours of each other, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, July 4th, 1826.

Independence Day is exactly the time to consider these weighty philosophical and religious concepts of liberty.   We must remember the principles which have made us a great nation.  And it is important to remember the sacrifices of patriots in one of America’s worst and most costly wars.

So, as you are chomping down on that hot dog, remember this is the day of the Declaration that helped create the greatest and longest-lasting Free Republic in the history of mankind. Ring a bell, fly the flag, shoot a gun.

The fact that something so profound as the Declaration Of Independence could come out of a committee makes it even more astounding.

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