A Declaration of Independence and Unity
The Declaration of Independence is the most important document in American history, bar none. Not only did it legally create the United States, but it infused into our culture nearly all of our important ideals and values – our “inalienable rights,” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and especially our belief that “all men are created equal.”
Of course, no one in 1776 realized how important the Declaration would become. Much to his later regret, John Adams thought the important decision had been taken on July 2, 1776, when the Congress voted for independence. “The Second Day of July,” he told Abigail on that day, “will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America.” He believed that it “would be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great Anniversary Festival. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Adams was so busy at this time, serving on two dozen committees of the Continental Congress, that he was probably relieved that Thomas Jefferson was assigned the task of drafting the Declaration. Jefferson never made any claim of originality. The object of the Declaration, he later recalled, was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.” It was, he said, simply meant “to be an expression of the American mind.”
Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way university professor and professor of history emeritus at Brown University, and a member of the JMC’s Academic Council.
He will give the plenary lecture, “In Pursuit of an enlightened Liberty: The Significance of the Declaration of Independence”, at the symposium on “A Declaration of Life and Liberty”, November 3rd at the National Constitution Center. Read more here.