240 years ago last month, the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence was selected by the First Continental Congress. The full committee included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. Sherman was called away and never signed it. Livingston reviewed and signed the document the three others provided, without edit. As a result, no one outside of academia has any idea who Sherman and Livingston are. Of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, only Franklin was the Benjamin Franklin of our history books by then, having seemingly invented most of the things invented in the 18th century. The others were simply two respected lawyers and landowners from Virginia and Massachusetts.
Jefferson asked Adams to write the first draft. He refused, stating that he had been far too “obnoxious” in his calls for its creation to be taken seriously. Self awareness is a powerful accomplishment.
There are a lot of memorable words in that declaration. One’s we recite regularly and point to as the foundational ideals of our American society.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..”
That’s an important one. Though we didn’t really mean it at the time. The next 240 years or so would be one long fight to fix that. The enemies of our independence pointed to that statement and rolled their eyes at our hypocrisy, the author himself owning scores of other “equal” men.
“they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
Also important, taken from John Locke in the previous century though. It wasn’t a new idea, but the genius was how Jefferson coupled it with equality for all, a powerful sword against the class system and subjugation of the crown. Perhaps no other words, save scripture, have bound a society more strongly than the equality and liberty declared in the first few sentences of that great document.
But for me, it’s not the most important part. There’s another one, buried down deep in the last paragraph-after the laundry list grievances against the crown. We rarely get to it. We remember the first line. But it’s the last line that gives the document its power.
“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.”
Then they signed it. 56 men, most of them the upper class of colonial society, lawyers, planters, publishers, shipping magnates-gentlemen. The power of the document was not in its borrowed words. Men had been thinking and writing and longing for the things Jefferson wrote in the opening paragraph for as long as men have been thinking and writing and longing for things. It was the commitment to action that changed the world-the risk of lives, fortunes and honor.
The only thing that has moved our world forward, towards life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is action in the name of others-more importantly action by those not motivated by self-when the “have’s” of society ignore their positions of situational wealth and well being to give voice to a cause on behalf of the “have not’s”. Nothing happens until the people least effected by something, speak up for those most effected by it. For millennia, rulers used patronage to appease the classes most capable of insisting on change. It can be an impassable barrier to progress. Self preservation is the greatest friend oppression ever had. The Declaration, even for just a moment, changed things.
240 years after this great document was signed, we can all take measured satisfaction that we’ve aligned to protect our liberties and insisted, too slowly perhaps, on equality. But the thing we have to ask ourselves is this. Have we held true to the powerful pledge those 56 men locked arms together and marched forward with, against the best interest of their fortunes and their honor?
If you are wealthy, do you give voice to the needy, even if it may cost you something? If you are included, do you insist, even at risk to your own standing, on the inclusion of those who aren’t? Or have you been appeased by your own success. Are you willingly powerless in service to self.
The world moves forward when those without the dire need give voice to the plight of those with it. When those not being killed by gun violence demand a dialogue about a solution on behalf of those who are. When those not subject to disproportionate treatment by the justice system insist on accountability. When those able to marry and participate in a society of family insist on inclusion for those who can’t. When those who’s financial outcomes may be worse off if they insist on environmental protection, do just that in service to a better world for future generations.
Things get better when we’re prepared to sacrifice for others. When we go beyond the abstract of talk and ideas and into the reality of action. Where our lives, fortunes and honor are at stake. In those selfless moments, we capture what has made America great. When we choose to do nothing because the status quo suits us, the world stands still.
We’ll celebrate our country today. We’ll celebrate equality and liberty. We’ll celebrate the men who wrote and signed that document. But if you can, take a moment to account for your actions in the face of others in need. And remember the greatest victory of our founding fathers. The courage to cast off the burden of self preservation in service to the greater good. That’s America. When we’re great, that’s what we do.