The Declaration of Independence and Us

Prior to July 4th, 1776, the United States of America was a set of colonies owned by King George III’s England. The story of our independence is familiar enough: some guys in red face threw tea into the Boston Harbor, representation in the media without taxation was the talk of the town, British people were tar and feathered, and, finally, America was born. As it turns out, historical causality is a tricky thing to tease out. The haphazard list of events we associate with the American Revolution win some sort of coherence in our minds since America is already here. There is no real need to search deep in our hearts or the archives for the answer to why we are here.

In times of uncertainty, and I am not sure one could say when we were last graced by times of certainty, convictions about ‘who we are’ tend to falter. With that in mind, it might pay to revisit some of the ideas that fueled the American Revolution. Every 4th of July we celebrate the ratification of a document that speaks to these ideas, which we often simply forget, take for granted, or even worse: do not believe in.

It is difficult to imagine the world-historical status of such ideas for similar reasons. At the time, Europe, for the most part, was split up into kingdoms ruled by Absolute Monarchs. Absolute monarchy, again, is difficult to imagine from our vantage point: the aftermath of its overthrowing. The law, which today is diffused through so many bureaucratic mechanisms of checks and balances, used to be located in the crown of one single individual: the sovereign.

Against the backdrop of such terrestrial divinities roaming Europe, Thomas Jefferson’s utterance 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, [1]” reached our ears in much the same way that a popular music phenomenon enters our cultural sphere. Take the Beatles, or Taylor Swift (if you are younger): at first there was a whisper, as indistinct as the rest of the noise that fades to the background in our daily lives. One day, the sound of this music becomes clear and distinct as one begins to realize that everybody everywhere is constantly playing it. At once, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a world not populated by the music of Taylor Swift; just as it is impossible to imagine a world where it is not perfectly reasonable to fight for and defend the unalienable rights that Jefferson speaks of.

But again, how do the injunctions towards the defense of those rights from The Declaration of Independence speak to us today? The lines immediately following the ones quoted above read:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness [2].”

As Jefferson writes in a letter to Abigail Adams, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive… I like a little rebellion now and then. [3]” Rebellion by the people against the government, Jefferson invites us to think, is good for the health of the republic. As the declaration makes clear, the government draws its legitimacy from the people and ought not stand over and above those people. Of course, Jefferson and the founding fathers do not advocate for rebellion as a good in itself, but evoke it as a necessity to advance the original goals of the American Revolution.

Emblematic of 4th of July celebrations are grilling, days off of work, and fireworks; all stand-ins for the celebration of what America is all about. During times of unrest, we tend to take the 4th of July as an opportunity to remember the good old days, say before the decline in political civility [4]. Perhaps a more authentic celebration of The Declaration of Independence would involve looking upon the current unrest through the eyes of that document. Does the current of rebellion live up to or advance the ideals of the founding fathers? Or does it mark a further betrayal of them?  



[2] ibid.

[3] Letter to Abigail Adams


Written by: Yanis Azzou, Library Assistant


By rcll

July 10, 2023

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