The Valdosta Daily Times
In retrospect, it is easy to forget that the approval of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, was a revolutionary act. As Americans, we have celebrated the Fourth of July for 237 years, but we often forget that it took a war of eight long years to ensure the United States’ separation from the British Empire.
Since we know the outcome of that momentous event, we often take for granted that the Founding Fathers also knew that they would win. We forget that failure to secure American independence would possibly mean the Declaration would become their death warrant.
One Declaration signer supposedly noted that, We must all hang together, prompting Benjamin Franklin to famously add, Or we shall certainly hang separately. We forget that had the American Revolution failed, Britain would have likely branded the signers as traitors, and our Founding Fathers would have been executed, imprisoned or exiled.
Since we know how it all ended, we overlook that the Founding Fathers had no idea what would happen next. True, they had hopes and faith in their actions. John Adams rightly predicted that Americans would celebrate the anniversary of American independence as a holiday of jubilation. But the founders had neither guarantees that they were forging a new nation nor that its creation would still be celebrated more than two centuries later.
In July 1776, they only knew that they were taking a bold step. The Declaration of Independence pitted a loose confederation of argumentative colonies against Britain, which was then the world’s predominant superpower with an empire and resources spanning the globe. The founders knew the hazards of this conflict while our generations, which have lived with the concept of America as a superpower for decades, tend to forget that our ancestors were financially and militarily outmatched.
So, we often skim over the courage and faith of the Founding Fathers based on our knowledge of the Revolutionary War’s outcome. Yet, we also take for granted the truly revolutionary idea that the founders proposed. The Declaration of Independence promised a new type of nation.
The most extraordinary idea in the Declaration of Independence — perhaps the most important and crucial line penned in all of American history — is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It is this one line, possibly more than any other in the document, which has led some historians to refer to the Declaration of Independence as “American Scripture.”
The Declaration is not a document of how a nation should be governed that is the purpose of the Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence and its words of equality have become the benchmark of the American Dream, a calling card for the nation’s purpose.
The Founding Fathers could not know how these words would shape their new nation and the world in the years to come. The majority of the founders took it for granted that equality extended only to land-owning, white males. They possibly could not have predicted that the Declaration would become a promise for all Americans, man, woman and child, regardless of race, religion or creed. They would likely be shocked to learn that the Declaration’s meaning is still debated today.
But the promises of the document, of the Fourth of July, of the American ideal remain. It is a promise of freedom that we should never take for granted.