If I were to take a poll and as what people know if the Declaration of Independence, most would probably say the most famous phrase Jefferson wrote, which was: “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 wonderfully written, and much analyzed, praised, and derided line was essentially pinched from the work of John Locke, a 17th century writer, thinker, and philosopher. Locke wrote in his Two Treatise of Civil Government that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and property. Locke believed those three things were essential to the notion of natural law and natural rights, what Jefferson called inalienable rights we’re born with.
What most people never bother to consider are the conditions into which the Declaration of Independence was written, what is referred to as historical context. When such context is added, the power and significance of the Declaration is magnified considerably, making the document more than just recited words written on parchment and preserved in Washington D.C. The document takes on an entirely new meaning, one that should inspire those in D.C. and those outside of D.C. to ensure it’s preservation, regardless of political affiliation.
When one takes into consideration the politics of the time, as well as the dominant political system in Europe, which was monarchy, the words of Locke and Jefferson take on an even greater meaning. One, Locke, was openly challenging the “existing order of things,” while Jefferson was speaking for an entire collection of colonies openly challenging the authority of the mother country. Neither of these was acceptable practice, and the price to pay for such insubordination by many was imprisonment, or death.
This is what makes the Declaration of Independence so important a document, contextually. Jefferson, as well as all the men that signed it, understood the magnitude of what they were doing, something over the course of time, we’ve forgotten. This is to be expected as time tends to shroud the past in a mist, rendering what once was a mere shadow rather than a clear vision. The result is that those of us living in the present recall the twilight of events, the events themselves standing out, but the circumstances surrounding said events: emotions, risks, relegated to tales and anecdotes.
In the most severe instances, the prospect of what was faced, be it death or severe trial, is also lost, the future not truly understanding what the past endured. We remember the meal, but not the tastes. This is what we’ve forgotten regarding the Declaration of Independence. We know what the document stood for in the present, what it says, but we don’t fully grasp the risk or the dangers involved in producing this document, the parchment that defines the very existence of this nation.
Part of the reason for such forgetfulness is the treatment of the document. We read the opening paragraphs where Mr. Jefferson eloquently describes the reason for writing the document as well as what the Founders believed regarding natural rights. He also outlines the conditions that necessitate the change from being under the yoke of the British crown and why independence was required, justifying it, again, through the notion of natural law and right (borrowing quite extensively from Locke while doing so).
Most of the time, analysis, especially in schools, ends there, for what follows is a list of grievances, the very reason for the Declaration in the first place. Most find the reading of these grievances tedious and boring, so they’re skipped over (a mistake in the opinion here). The result is few make it to the defining paragraph of the entire document, the one that lays out how strongly the Founders believed in this cause.
Remember, they decided to take on the most powerful nation on the planet, a nation that up to that time, did not lose a single conflict in 20 years. They decided to enrage a government bent on their submission, if nothing else, to prove a point about British supremacy and as an example to other colonies of the consequences of considered separation. Finally, they did it without the tools for war: a barely existing army, little funding, and even smaller unity by the states. It was as though the Founders were shouting at the incoming storm without shelter, naked and alone as the storm clouds gathered, hoping for the best.
They understood their undertaking, but even more impressive, understood their fate should this venture of theirs fail. They knew what awaited them, and took pains to remind us all, the future, of what they were prepared to sacrifice. It is contained in the last paragraph, the last sentence, the one few ever venture to read, but the paragraph that should be read the most, if nothing else, to remind us of the price of freedom itself.
“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.”
They knew what they were facing, and wanted to remind us all of their risk. Should this venture fail, all were faced with execution as traitors to the crown. Often that involved drawing and quartering (hanging until almost dead, then dismemberment), or disembowelment while hanging. They would lose everything they had, as well as their families…nothing would be left. Such was the way things were handled in the past, and such was the fate awaiting the Founders if they failed.
Consider the magnitude of what those men faced. Further, consider the consequences if they lost. It was the ultimate gamble, a gambit with a significant upside: the freedom of a people to choose, or the downside, the extinction of a people, an ideology based on natural rights, and the brutal execution of those who precipitated the action.
Is it any wonder why those men should be venerated? Have statues erected in their honor? How many of us would risk being disemboweled or drawn and quartered for the notion of freedom not only of ourselves but an entire people? How many of us would dare challenge the most powerful nation on earth with a token army, little funding, and merely the hope of victory?
How many of us would be willing to lose all that we hold dear and all that we are for the simple notion of freedom?
If the spirit of the Declaration of Independence is to be truly understood, the contents can be found in the last line, and we should take pains to remember it, for in the words of Merlin the Magician in the film, Excalibur: “It is the doom of men that they forget.”