The Declaration of Independence

This is a blog about America. I’m aware that what with the Iraq war, crazy Creationists and preposterous levels of consumerism (particularly of oil), America is not everyone’s flavour of the month right now. Nor is Britain, come to think of it. However, this blog is kind of a celebration of this particular country and how it came to be fully independent – with a little help from some actual Americans I know who agreed to complete a small survey I devised in order to find out how they felt about the Declaration of Independence and what it means to them. Unfortunately the writing goes very small part way down the page for some unknown reason…sorry about that, have no idea why blasted WordPress decided to do it and have tried numerous ways of correcting it without success :-/

To start with, I myself am British, but I became interested in the story behind the Declaration of Independence after listening to part of a radio programme a while ago that I now can’t remember much about at all, suffice to say that it encouraged me to go and find out more about it. Bearing in mind that most of the following factual information comes from sources on the internet, I can’t be absolutely certain that it’s all strictly correct. If you spot any embarrassing errors, do let me know.

Before I go into more detail, I should point out that part of the reason this has taken so long to write was that every mention of human rights I made in this blog made me go off on increasingly ranty tangents, so I have decided to cut all of that stuff out and keep it very simple. This was mainly to a) stop myself from sounding like some sort of fanatical loony and b) make sure that this thing actually got written!

During the last half of the eighteenth century there was a period of serious political upheaval in the American colonies – mainly due to the fact that they were becoming increasingly resentful of the way they were being governed by Britain. Relations between the two began to worsen after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Britain was badly in debt and so Parliament decided to increase taxes in the colonies in order to repay it. Certain acts, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, were brought in to ensure that the colonies paid what Parliament considered to be their fair share of the costs. However many colonists did not agree with this. They argued that under the British Constitution, a British subject’s property (in the form of taxes) could not be taken from him without his consent (in the form of representation in government). This view was succinctly expressed in the slogan “no taxation without representation”. It was argued that since the colonies had no Parliamentary representation, it was unconstitutional to demand that they pay taxes to the British government.

In 1776 a man called Thomas Jefferson drafted a document that listed all of the colonies’ grievances against King George and the British government, along with an assertion of the fundamental human rights of every American citizen. A man called Thomas Paine, who was visiting the colonies at around this time, published a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense” that proved immensely popular and helped to sway public opinion in favour of separation from Britain. He also wrote “The Rights of Man”, which contains these words:

“(1) Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility; (2) The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression; and (3) The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; neither can any individual, nor any body of men, be entitled to any authority, which is not expressly derived from it.”

I am all for having this sort of declaration in written form to be kept alongside the laws of government as a reminder that there are certain fundamental rights that are unchanging and irreducible and should be recognised as such. I was slightly shocked to discover that here in Britain we have no such formal document to protect our rights, although it is mentioned in other documents such as the Human Rights Act and the British Constitution. I like the idea of going back to the basics and saying, “Right, before we do anything else, let’s make sure we’re clear on what we consider to be the fundamental rights of every citizen.”

Although the above passage from “The Rights of Man” does contain some noble sentiments, I feel that they are much more elegantly expressed in the Declaration of Independence itself, which states as follows:

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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Isn’t that beautiful? If I was American I would be fiercely proud of that sentence. Whilst I am aware that, being British, I should probably be less than pleased about the result of the American Revolution, in reality I always tend to side with the underdog. I think that the fact that the colonies refused to allow themselves to be oppressed by a domineering ruler and instead chose to strike out on their own makes for an immensely inspiring story.

Well now you’ve heard some of the history behind it and what I think about it, here are four Americans’ thoughts on the Declaration of Independence. The questions are listed first, and then each participant’s responses. This mini-survey wasn’t done in order to reach any definite conclusions, but merely because I wanted to know whether Americans found the wording of the Declaration of Independence, and that one sentence in particular, as inspiring as I did.

The Questions:

1) Did you have to learn the Declaration (or about it) in school?

2) Did it make an impression on you and do you think it’s relevant in today’s modern society?

3) Are you inspired by/proud of the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence?

First respondent – JC:

1) Yes he did study it and how it came about, why it happened at that time etc, but can’t remember much of it now. He also said that it reflects a rather biased viewpoint, particularly with regard to American Indians.

2) Yes to both. JC thinks it is important that people remember their beginnings, the basic tenets of human rights and also the fact that America first began as a country because people wanted to be able to practise their religion freely.

3) JC said that he does find it inspiring and mentioned that he sees the Declaration as being on similar lines to Ten Commandments, viz: laws that were designed to help people live peacefully as a society. But he also feels that some of the tenets may not have been valid when it was written (biased), and of course there may also be points which were valid at the time but aren’t now.

Second respondent – SP:

1) Yes, we did.  We mostly just learned about the part up to the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” part, though.

2) Yes, it made an impression on me and I think it is still relevant.  Mostly just the first part because that talks about our “inalienable rights” and whatnot.  It is still quoted during political debates today although many times many people believe they are quoting our Constitution instead.  The rest of it is a list of grievances against King George III and Great Britain so that part is not as relevant, anymore.

3) Yes.  It’s primary message that humans are born free with certain rights no other man should take away from you is something that still (and should continue to) inspire me and any other human.

Third respondent – AB:

1) Yes, any U.S. history classes in elementary and high school at least mentioned the D of I, even if we didn’t talk about it in depth.

2) Yes, though it actually made more of an impression on me later in my education when I realized how unprecedented and how dangerous it was. It’s still relevant in that it expresses many of the ideals of the U.S. and why the U.S. exists, but it’s important not to put too much emphasis on it since it’s not actually a legal document. The Constitution is far more relevant.

3) I wouldn’t say I’m all that inspired by its ideals because that’s just what I grew up knowing. What inspires me is how brilliantly it is written (especially that second sentence), as well as the fact that at one time, there were people in America who were willing to take such risks and willing to take on something that never had been done before.

Fourth and final respondent – KW:

1) KW said that in the 1950s it was introduced to student in 4th grade (that would be at about 9 or 10 years of age). Every student was taught about the events leading to the Revolution against British rule and of the importance of the Declaration of Independence. We were also given examples of other countries applying similiar concepts to develop their own new style of self governing.

2/3) While it was quite grand and inspiring there were still gaping lapses in some of the concepts because people of colour were still not allowed to vote and women were not treated equal to men in matters of work or social status. There were social attitudes quite negative to divorced women,pity for those unmarried or childless. Really quite strange when you look back upon it now. Still, in spite of the gaps that were present only because of the views at the time, it is still a marvelous mandate for people to accept the responsibilities to govern themselves under laws they create. And the language did allow for change as society grew
in experience. Because people are what they are,there will always be those who use the language to create their own interpretaton that may not be for the common good,the basis,especially those statements in the preamble are a wonderful basis on which to build a sound,sensible country.

So there you have it folks. I would like to thank all four participants, who were not only prepared to give up some of their precious time to take part, but also provided such intelligent and thoughtful answers. I hope you feel that the resulting blog was worthy of your effort on my behalf – my apologies for taking such an inordinate amount of time to write it! 🙂

I would also like to add that I feel it is important for us to remember just exactly how self-evident and inalienable these fundamental human rights are – particularly when there has recently been a certain amount of debate over what constitutes freedom of speech, for example. *cough* twitterjoketrial *cough*

Having pointed you down the path of political debate, I shall now silently retire, leaving only these words to act as a small but eternal light to guide your way 🙂

“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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

*goes all emotional*

*makes dignified exit*

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2 Responses to The Declaration of Independence

  1. DOT says:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident…’ is a beautiful line. The difficulty with it is the ending, ‘the pursuit of Happiness’.

    What does that mean? In America, the pursuit has lead inexorably to the cult of individualism and rampant materialism. Are we happy?

    According to a recent Beeb newsreport, £50k p.a. is the optimum income – sufficient to meet all possible needs without having to suffer the pangs of envy that your yacht is not quite as big as my yacht.

    Mind you, £50k p.a. would still put you in the top 8% of earners in this country. So as Cameron conducts his search to create a happiness index, he can start with the assumption that less than 8% of the population is happy. However, if he were to redistribute the money we spent on saving the banks – most of whose employees must be unhappy because they earn millions – to the general population, many more of us could be happy.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thanks v much for your comment! : Re: “pursuit of happiness”, I refer you to a quote from the Will Smith film “The Pursuit of Happyness” – “It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?” I think that’s what that part of the Declaration means to me 🙂

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