Column: Declaration signing a monumental act
Independence Day is a much more light-hearted and festive American holiday — with cookouts, parades, beach and boating parties and fireworks — than other patriotic holidays such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
Most people forget that when the 56 members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they were in fact signing their death warrants. At the time Great Britain was the most powerful nation on earth, while the 13 colonies were poor and disunited. The British Crown deemed the issuance of a declaration an act of treason. All signatories would be punishable by death.
It’s for this reason, combined with the low odds of prevailing against the British Army and Navy, the identities of the 56 members of the Continental Congress who committed to separating from England were not made immediately public. For the first six months following the Declaration’s signing, copies of the document displayed only two signatures: John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress.
Things looked grim for the Continental Army in the first few months of the war for independence.
What prompted the Continental Congress to begin displaying all 56 signatories of the Declaration can be traced to Washington’s rebound and success three months later at the Battle of Trenton in December 1776 — a remarkable victory considering the odds were no better than they were in the prior New York engagement. Perceiving this could be a turning point and harbinger of ultimate military victory, and perhaps with apparent taking to heart of the last sentence in the Declaration that “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” the Continental Congress, aka the Founding Fathers, began posting the fully-signed copies of the Declaration throughout the 13 colonies in January 1777.
If we take the Declaration of Independence seriously in terms of the words selected to mobilize support for the cause, the Founding Fathers put everything on the line and trusted the Almighty for the results. As the esteemed British historian, Paul Johnson, notes: “The Americans were overwhelmingly churchgoing, much more so than the English, whose rule they rejected. There is no question that the Declaration of Independence was, to those who signed it, a religious as well as a secular act.”
What was truly revolutionary was not just the ultimate success in war for independence, but the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that the rights of the people come from God, and not the state. And since rights come from God, they are absolute and “inalienable,” and the state’s governing authority was to be limited by that first principle and thus should not infringe those rights. No other nation in history, perhaps with the exception of ancient Israel, was founded in such a way that the sovereignty of the state was limited by inalienable rights of its people.
The Declaration is not just what gave political birth to the United States, with its unique emphasis on limited government and the freedom for citizens. It was these simple ideas put into practice that also enabled the nation’s ascendance from colonial poverty to global superpower in a little more than 200 years.
However, during the last 50 years, America has increasingly been on a course of denial and retreat from the principles that made her the envy of the world for generations. May this July 4 be a special time, perhaps a turning point, to renew those ideas and convictions that brought the founders together. It’s not about being reactionary or turning the clock back, but rather it’s about aligning our thinking and action with ideas, principles, courage and faith that enabled prior generations of Americans to advance and prosper more than any other people in human history.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.