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Declaring Independence: Words Made Actions
Beyond the Declaration of Independence’ obvious historical relevance to the founding of the United States, it is also a wondrous exemplar of the power of language. It is not merely a powerful political document, but a powerful personal document as well, putting into vivid words the choices and actions of the 56 members of the Continental Congress who would put their names to it.
That the Declaration is historic not just for the sheer chutzpah of the upstart colonies daring to suggest that they could and should be independent of the British Empire, but also for its sweeping and even poetic vision of humanity, a vision in which “all men are created equal,” is something every American History and civics course teaches, and with good reason. The chain of events which culminated in the drafting of the United States Constitution and the creation of the Republic which it governs begins with the Declaration.
Thus we know already that the enduring power of the Declaration lies in what it is: a straightforward case for American independence from Great Britain. It details the political grievances of the thirteen colonies, touches previous attempts at rapprochement and reconciliation over those grievances, and finally concludes that Independence is the only course left open to the colonies.
Yet when we read beyond its famous exposition that “all men are created equal,” we find subtle reminders not merely of the moral imperative of freedom, liberty, and independence, but also of the why and the how of respect, also a moral imperative. We are reminded that changing government is not a thing to be done frivolously, yet at times becomes the thing that must absolutely be done.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Even as the Continental Congress championed the cause of American Independence, it celebrated the virtue of coming to that cause through careful and thoughtful deliberation. Within the Declaration are the reminders that we owe it to ourselves, as well as all those around us and all those whom we hold dear, to act with prudence and caution. We are called to use our experience and the experiences of others to ground our choices in reason rather than recklessness.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The Declaration also leaves no doubt about the imperative of action. Independence was not merely a right for the colonies but an affirmative duty. Just as they owed it to themselves to act with reason rather than recklessness, where there was reason, where prudence and caution had been applied, if the problem persisted then there was equally duty to do something about it.
Independence was not the desirable goal sought by the Continental Congress—personal and political freedom were that. Rather, it was the necessary action for achieving that goal. With all other options either failed or foreclosed, independence was the option that remained. Being the only option left, it was the option they were duty bound to choose. It was the action they were duty bound to take.
Thus independence became the colonists’ responsibility and not merely their right.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
In embracing that responsibility, the Continental Congress left no doubt what they were seeking, or what the costs might be to them personally. By signing their names to the Declaration, they accepted those costs without reservation.
We should not forget that independence was a costly choice for each of those 56 men to make; the war that followed the Declaration would leave almost all of them financially poorer than before. That the colonies had the fortitude and the endurance to see that war of independence through to the end is why we have the Declaration of Independence today, and why we celebrate its crafting in that summer of 1776. The Declaration of Independence is historic because those who drafted it chose the course of independence, accepted the consequences of that choice, and still followed the path of independence through to the end. Their actions, and the actions of the American colonists, give us the words of the Declaration today.
Thus the Declaration of Independence comes to us also as a reminder that that we are called to live through actions, and that our words gain meaning by our actions. Where we encounter problems, we are called to seek solutions—and where there are solutions it is our duty to pursue them.
Within the legacy of the Declaration of Independence is a legacy of choice, a legacy of action. Its words were the choice and the action of the Continental Congress. From that choice and from that action came a new nation.
Among the many messages of the Declaration of Independence there is simply this: that if we are to be free, it is upon us to reason, us to deliberate, us to choose, and us to act. Only then can any of us ever be free. Only then can any of us pursue independence of any kind.
The Declaration of Independence encapsulates the reason, the deliberation, the choice, and the action of the Continental Congress, and, by extension, the whole of the thirteen colonies that would become the United States of America. The eloquence of its words comes from the choosing and the action it signified.
When next you are called to choose, will your words likewise signify your choice and your action? Will you likewise declare your independence as a human being, and live accordingly?
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