By Rebekah Bibb, NFRW Armed Services Committee
The summer of 1776 was a season of culmination, transition, and new beginnings for the American colonists. After a long period of largely autonomous self-government, the British parliament under King George III instituted a series of acts restricting the rights and liberties of Americans to check their inclinations toward independent action. It had the opposite effect.
Drawing on universal truths, taken to be “self-evident” because they were seen as woven into the fabric of reality and human nature, the Continental Congress of 1776 articulated those truths in light of their specific circumstances. For the benefit of both their constituents and the wider world, the Congress outlined the reasons and justification for their separation from the British crown. Whereas previous revolutionaries appealed to might of arms or the divine right of kings to justify their actions, the Americans did so by appealing to “the law of nature and nature’s God.”
Central to their argument was the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” Neither animals nor gods, human beings possessed inherent dignity because, it was believed, all people possessed a spark of the divine and were thus entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Given the imperfection of man, governments were necessary to secure these rights but were only valid if their authority derived from the “consent of the governed.”
In swearing allegiance to these truths over and against the authority of the king, the signers of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, engaged in the ultimate act of defiance and were thereafter under threat of execution as traitors to the crown. But they believed it was worth it. They defied the British for the sake of the freedom to live meaningful lives, not as British subjects but as Americans.
Within days of the signing of the Declaration, the commander-in-chief of the continental army, General George Washington, ordered that it be read aloud to his assembled army. He knew that it was up to him and his band of patriots to enforce the statements made in the document. He believed it was of primary importance that his warriors knew exactly what they were fighting for. This contributed in no small part to his eventual victory.
Nearly two and a half centuries later, the truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence are as relevant as ever. They are universal and eternal, and thus do not expire. The future of the United States of America depends on whether its citizens remember and cherish those truths as their predecessors did. If they do, liberty and virtue will provide a firm foundation for future generations to build meaningful, productive, and prosperous lives. If they don’t, decay and degeneracy await. It is for this generation of Americans to decide.