American Independence was won, most would agree, with the British surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781. The greatest and most powerful Empire of the age waived a white handkerchief in Virginia–a State named for the British Queen Elizabeth (I). The first shots were fired six years earlier at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April of 1775, but the war had been brewing for a decade before it matured in organized combat between armies. The date we mark on our calendars for flag waiving is July 4th. I’m one of those people who think everyday is the 4th of July and the founding of the American Experiment is never far from my mind.
July 4th is a doubly special day because it marks the anniversary of the day that two of the three men who drafted the Declaration of Independence died.
On July 2, 1826, Thomas Jefferson, the principle author of the Declaration of Independence and former President of the United States, fell unconscious. He came out of the haze twice, to ask if was yet the Fourth of July. And on that day, July 4, 1826, he passed, just after noon. Co-author of the Declaration of Independence, another former President of the United States and long time bitter political enemy of Jefferson, John Adams, awoke from his own deathbed haze to proclaim that Thomas Jefferson lives about the time that Jefferson had just died. A few hours latter he passed as well.
The third author of the Declaration of Independence was the most famous American of the day and only one of the three to never become President, Benjamin Franklin. He died in April of 1790, never having to witness the election of 1800 and some bitter political campaigns that make today’s look like church picnics.
There exists a document in the National Archives that was Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin and Adams’ handwritten alterations are visible. I read it and tear up uncontrollably, like I’m watching a particularly moving commercial.
The major revision that the Continental Congress made to the document Jefferson, Franklin and Adams drafted was removing a provision that blasted the King of England for the institution of slavery:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Very few men sign a document in their lives that puts them at direct risk of death and poverty. These men did it for an ideal. A people, exercising their God given rights as individuals, to toss aside a remote and corrupt Government and chart their own dangerous course. The heart of this ideal is the belief that every child is born free and equal, with rights to which no Government may lay claim. The words authored by Jefferson as amended by Franklin are some of the most important words ever published:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Nations have risen and fallen on the backs of these words. They are measure to which we contemplate the failures and successes of our age, and every age. They proclaim that we elect servants and Rule ourselves.
The level to which we will tolerate a Government to order the individual and order society is a test that each Government, like a velociraptor, engages in to discover the limitations that constrain it for weakness. The British Parliament thought that the colonies should be taxed to pay for the armies that protected them from the French and Native Americans. They got themselves a Tea Party. Parliament then limited the westward expansion of the colonies and got themselves a war.
Today, Governments can make you buy things it likes you buy, can (try) to stop you buying things it doesn’t like, and make you sell things you don’t want to make. It can change your name and force you engage in commerce. Governments are not nations or a people. Governments are a million fiefdoms of mostly incompetent and well meaning hammers looking for nails. People are still born free and equal, with unalienable rights. And on the Fourth of July, the American Experiment, in all its glory, success and failure celebrates another anniversary.