The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America form the bedrock of the American Charters of Freedom, a group of documents which also includes the Bill of Rights. All three are enshrined in the Rotunda of the National Archives in an altar-like setting. Abraham Lincoln referred to these documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence, as American scripture, even using the phrase "American civil religion" when he would invoke the Declaration’s place in American memory.
We tend to take the Charters of Freedom for granted and hardly recognize that the Constitution was deliberately written in the present tense to make it a “living document.” And while these documents are all related, they each have a particular history which in its own way binds them. What is crucial to understand about the United States and what makes it daily a work in progress is that the nation is established on a set of principles and ideas through which people are not bound by tribe, race, religion, or language.
Americans celebrate the 4th of July as the day of Independence, but John Adams, one of the five members of the 2nd Continental Congress to serve on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, believed that “the day of deliverance” was actually July 2nd, 1776, the day Congress voted on it, not July 4th, which was a day that Congress refined some of the language.
And unlike John Trumbull’s stirring painting of the event that hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, in which all fifty-five signers appear gathered together, the document was actually signed over a long period of time. Jefferson’s sublime anthem that “all men are created free and equal” from the Declaration's Preamble was roundly cheered at the time, but continues to be defined by each successive generation of Americans. One factor that influenced the Declaration of Independence was the publication in early 1776 of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, which argued in succinct terms that ordinary people had the capacity to govern themselves and did not need to be led by a crowned official. This factor alone made the American Revolution a game-changer in the history of the world. Primogeniture was out and meritocracy was in. Members of Congress, like the American colonists, were heavily influenced by Paine’s text, which had become a sensation and bestseller throughout the thirteen British colonies huddled along the Atlantic Coast. The Declaration simply articulated Paine’s ideas in a more formal manner, declaring separation between England and her American colonies. The timing of the Declaration’s release is interesting to note as the war that had broken out in Massachusetts in April 1775 had shifted from New England to the City of New York. George Washington’s rag-tag Continental Army was in the midst of preparing a defense of New York, anticipating a large British attack. The President of Congress, John Hancock, sent a copy of the Declaration to Washington on July 6 and on July 9 had the document read to his assembled troops. All involved signers of the document and those now fighting to defend it were engaged in treason. Within six weeks, Washington’s army would be routed in New York and by the following December the Continental Army was on the verge of disintegration.
In many respects, the American Revolution and subsequent War for Independence was the prodigy of the Enlightenment, that 17th century intellectual movement in Europe that sparked new ideas about humanity, science, government, human rights and reason infused with a sense of liberal nationalism. The most influential European philosopher on the American Revolution was Englishman John Locke, who at the end of the 17th century expanded the notion of the social contract between those governed and those governing. Locke’s philosophy of the “social contract” greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson and its strains can be found throughout the Declaration of Independence.
But Locke’s philosophy and the works of other Enlightenment thinkers also influenced many noblemen and men of privilege living in Europe in 1776. These individuals, some with a military pedigree, like the Marquis de Lafayette (France), Casmir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciusko (Poland), Johan DeKalb (Bavaria), and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Prussia) were excited and energized at the possibilities for humankind that the new United States offered to the world. Many of them wanted to be part of the historical moment. It helped that representing the United States abroad in foreign governments, mostly operating out of Paris, was the wily and savvy Benjamin Franklin. Franklin would be the portal through which many of these foreign fighters found their way to the new United States. To be sure, the lure of a high rank in the nascent American Continental Army played a role as well, but these men must not be viewed as merely bounty hunters. The zeal of freedom was firmly entrenched in their hearts and minds. When news of the Declaration of Independence reached Europe, it was electrifying!
While military matters transpired on the battlefield, the 2nd Continental Congress, still convening in Philadelphia, had essentially become by default a quasi-government. One of their first orders of business was to provide a framework of government for the fledgling nation-colonies. With expediency in mind, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which created a loose confederation between the new “states.” The Articles created a weak central government with limited authority, and thus by the time the war had successfully concluded on American terms in 1783, no one was certain if the thirteen states were a collective unit of one sovereign nation or thirteen independent nations. Problems and squabbles soon erupted between the new states so that by 1787 it was apparent to individuals of leadership qualities, the men who had led, fought, and supported the War for Independence, that something needed to be done to solve the problems and clarify what the United States was.
On May 25, 1787, delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to send a representative) assembled once more in Philadelphia with the intention to revise the ineffective Articles of Confederation. Their first order of business was to appoint someone to preside over the meetings. Once more, George Washington was tapped for his leadership skills. For four months delegates debated, argued, and compromised deliberately in secrecy. The Constitutional Convention ended on September 17, 1787 with an entirely new system of government envisioned for the American people based on Enlightenment principles passed down through time principally on the writings of the French philosopher Montesquieu. A federal republic had been created with three separate branches of government: an executive, legislative, and judiciary. Powers were also divided, between the state and the federal (national) governments. James Madison, a delegate of Virginia, is considered to be the Father of the Constitution as he laid out most of the language, argued his various points skillfully on the floor and kept extensive notes on the meetings. Of the fifty-five men assembled for the Convention, only thirty-nine put their names on the document. Everyone knew it was an imperfect document and Benjamin Franklin did wisely say afterwards, "I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. ... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. ... It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies…”
With the Convention concluded, the delegates returned to their respective states with the document in hand and each state would hold its own separate Ratification Convention. Once three-quarters of the states ratified the Constitution, it would become the law of the land. Four of the states that had to be locks for ratification were the wealthiest and most populous: Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The Federalist Papers, published under the pseudonym of Publius, but written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, played a crucial role in securing the Constitution’s ratification in these lynchpin states.
While the story may be apocryphal, it is said that as the Convention ended in September 1787 the aged Benjamin Franklin, the oldest member of the assembly and one of only a few Americans to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, left the Pennsylvania State House and was approached by a woman who allegedly inquired, “So Dr. Franklin, what do we have?” “A Republic, if you can keep it” he is supposed to have replied. Now it is up to us.
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