Taking stock of our Declaration

July 2, 2023 1:33 pm

Thomas Jeffersons handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence is displayed at The British Library on March 11, 2015 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The country will celebrate its independence this week with the customary formula: fireworks, flags, parades, patriotic speeches, beer, brats and a four-day weekend because working the day before or after a federal holiday has become almost un-American.

The holiday’s origin story begins with the Declaration of Independence, submitted in Congress on July 4, 1776. Thank goodness they were working that day. We fancied ourselves the “united States of America,” our unity then an adjective rather than a proper name.

About a month later the Declaration was “engrossed” on parchment — the process of formally hand-writing the entire document. The rest is our history.

As schoolchildren we learned some of the key phrases of the document: “When in the Course of human events…,” “We hold these truth to be self-evident…,” and certainly the Declaration’s supposed crown jewel “… all men are created equal,” which experience has proven either an issue of narrow colonial language or a truth unrealized under the weight of our history. Some states, such as Florida, ignore the entire canon, offering instead a sanitized version of American history to its students.

A careful reading of the Declaration will uncover not simply Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful language and rhetoric, but also the following, which should be read before every legislative body begins its work: “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Of course, “this” in the previous sentence was the basis for which the Congress of 13 “united” states declared the new union “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.…” The signers predicated such absolution and dissolution on 27 “facts,” ranging from King George III’s refusal to “pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people” to quartering troops in our midst to taxing us without our consent.

This is the foundational story on which the country proclaimed its independence and why this week we Americans celebrate, now United in upper case and marking nearly 25 decades of avowing to go it alone, free and independent.

Fireworks show for Omaha visitors during Santa Lucia festivities. (Courtesy of Carlentini Omaha Association)

While bottle rockets whiz by, M-80s shake our sleep and other sundry bursting in air celebrations go forth to rattle our windows, Independence Day can be more than simply a time to party like it’s 1776 and revere our history. It can also be a good time to take stock of the Declaration itself. To do so requires us to consider what it is we truly value and, more importantly, do the quality and currency of our lives reflect that?

Do we still hold those truths to be self-evident? Or has history and experience and technology mitigated the ideas and fervor which made it necessary to sever political bands and strike out on our own? Is the triumvirate of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” still in play and do we still expect, as we did in 1776, that the government should always respect and never impede them? And when it doesn’t, do we change — as we did then — but never for “light or transient causes?”

Have we come to terms with the idea of equality, not only in our laws but in our minds?

I’m not trying to traffic in humbuggery this holiday week, so if my questions interfere with your celebratory vibe, my apologies. But taking a long look at ourselves on Independence Day should be part of the festivities — including our democracy’s improbable and indelible mark on human history.

We have been to the moon and back. We have cured disease, have others on the run and weathered a pandemic. We’ve defeated fascists selling fevered futures. We’ve built networks connecting us via concrete highways and gee-whiz technologies, the latter of which moves our ideas instantly and exponentially. We have improved countless qualities of lives.

And, although we have hard work ahead before equality has seeped into every pore of our nation’s flesh and every platelet of its bloodlines, we accomplished all those feats in diverse teams, where race, color, creed, identity, origin, age, geography and disability were not forgotten but rather mined to solve bigger problems and achieve greater goods.

Those successes by those people working in those capable confederations are facts to be submitted to a candid world.

The old bumper sticker read “America: Love It or Leave It.” But according to the Declaration of Independence,” the slogan should read something along the lines of …

“America: Loving All Its Self-Evident Truths.”

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.