When Americans think of July 4, 1776, we think of the Declaration of Independence and a famous phrase.
“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 …”
That’s usually as far as most of us go. But the document is much more than that. Apart from those lofty phrases, the Declaration of Independence is a list of complaints regarding “repeated injuries and usurpations” by British King George III.
“To prove this,” the Declaration stated, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
The Founders proceeded to list over two dozen examples with one common theme: The king was acting like a dictator.
Some articles in the eventual Constitution were answers to the concerns. And the ability to complain about our leaders was embedded in the American character.
There were various complaints about the king interfering with state legislatures, including:
• “He has refused to assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
• “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”
The king also meddled with the independent judiciary:
• “He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices and the amount and payment of their salaries.”
• He has deprived Americans of “the benefits of trial by jury.”
Not until late in the list of complaints did the Declaration get to the bottom line: The king was making war on the colony.
As the Declaration ended, the founders mentioned they had humbly “petitioned for redress” but were “answered only by repeated injury.”
And that was another precursor to the future Constitution; the First Amendment ensures the right of the people to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
So it is no wonder that the first founding document of the new nation, the Articles of Confederation, created a weak federal government.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787, which was designed to reform the Articles of Confederation, turned into a runaway convention and created an entirely new founding document. Even so, the new Constitution required the Bill of Rights to gain enough state support for ratification.
As for the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln continually referred to it in his speeches, that all its principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were America’s core values.
To fulfill those principles, our founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
Each of us, in small ways, can keep the flame of freedom alive with civic activities of voting, volunteering or mentoring.
Every year, as Americans celebrate our precious freedoms, we need to remember that we still have something historically special.
This editorial first appeared in The Florida Times-Union.