Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Of the many things we Americans take for granted, at the top, or close to it, are what are called the founding documents, those incredible collections of wisdom that established our country, and to a large extent, have defined us as a people. Not to date myself unnecessarily, but when I was in elementary and what used to be called junior high school, I was required -- required -- to read and study the three main documents, the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. Before graduating high school, I had to take, and pass a civics test which covered among other things, those three documents. The whole point of that exercise was to ensure that when I became age-eligible to vote, I fully understood how my government worked, and also the principles upon which it was built.
That kind of comprehensive learning is apparently not done in public schools today, which puzzles and saddens me.
Documents of any kind are at their root collections of words formed into sentences and arranged into paragraphs. The end game is to communicate a specific message to the reader. But words on a page do not by themselves communicate the emotion out of which such messages are crafted. The second greatest speech ever given on U.S. soil, after the Gettysburg Address, was given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot and steamy August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. Known as "I Have a Dream," it was a powerful cry from a people who, despite being citizens, had been systematically oppressed by the white majority. Even a study of the text impresses the reader with its message. But the most powerful element was Dr. King himself. Drawing on his passion and the shared dreams of the tens of thousands gathered, he turned a speech into an epic tone poem. The combination of the strength of those words and the power of his delivery created a riveting, and for America, a life-changing moment in our history. Even today, I can't read that speech without hearing Dr. King in my head.
Such words and moments are borne out of the times in which they are crafted. It was the same for the the crafters of our founding documents. These were people who also felt repression; who also yearned for the freedom to determine their own destiny. There is power in those words as well. The problem is for the modern citizen, those statements are framed in a somewhat antiquated form of expression which, while clear and distinct at that time, tends to make understanding their full import today somewhat difficult.
Yesterday, I had some free time, so I pulled up the text of the Declaration from the National Archives website. The first paragraph, the preamble, is to the modern eye and ear a jumble of cumbersome and unwieldy phrases. Essentially, it is telling the world that for the thirteen British colonies in North America, the time had arrived for them to stand up, alone and apart from Britain, and to take their place among the nations of the world. It also acknowledges the necessity of listing in detail those injuries and the causes that motivated that declaration.
But suddenly, in the next paragraph, the confusing jumble vanishes, and in words clear, concise, and unmistakeable, the cause is presented:
"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."
These words were quoted by Dr. King as a way of making America realize how far from the truth it had drifted, and I cannot read them without hearing his magnificent voice. It is also interesting to note that the phrase "that among these" clearly states that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not the sum total of those creator-given rights.
Next, it is stated that government exists by the consent of its people, not the other way around, something that both elected and appointed officials in Washington seem to conveniently forget. When such a government ceases to be responsive to the people, than the people have the right to demand a different system. There is a cautionary tone struck here in the words:
"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established
should not be changed for light and transient causes."
Clearly, this voice for independence was not spoken lightly. The reasons that impelled those men to this tipping point were strong. The pattern of abuses and usurpations inflicted by England on the colonies were, in their view, purposefully intended to impose despotism, and the former colonists were clear that this was their duty and their right to cast aside that oppressive burden.
What follows next is a list of specific charges against the King. This is interesting reading, because in these charges can be seen the nascent whispers of what would become the Constitution, and its amendments.
After the charges are listed, the Declaration states that the colonies had repeatedly asked for redress of grievances, and that the colonial governments had repeatedly warned the British that those grievances, and the punitive measures that were the response of the Crown to those requests, would eventually render intolerable the relations between the two, concluding with the statement that Britain would, like any other sovereign nation, would be considered "enemies in war, and in peace, friends."
The concluding paragraph makes the overt declaration that the former colonies would from that moment forward, sever all bonds and relations with Britain and consider themselves to be a free and independent nation. The final sentence backs up those inflammatory words with a promise personal to every American:
"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."
They would fight, and forfeit all they had, even their lives, to see this vision come to fruition.
Below were the signatures of everyone who was involved in this decision. No protective screen names or AKA's here. Clearly, they would not try to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, but risk the mortal punishment of treason to the Crown. That took a special kind of courage, considering the power and reach of the British Empire at that time. These men knew all about the customary treatment of prisoners, political and otherwise, by the British legal system back then. Those measures would today be considered crimes against humanity. The risk to them was very real. And personal. And it did not deter them in the least.
Having read and re-read the text, I sat back and thought about how those words would sound if delivered by someone with the gift and passion of Dr. King. I thought about how all the times I had heard someone read the Declaration of Independence, it had been delivered with all the passion of a cold, soulless academic paper. I began to understand why the words therein remain largely unknown and unilluminated to our current crop of citizens.
In order for those words to become meaningful, they must be delivered in a meaningful way, full of the passion and anger that drove those colonists to rise and stand on their own. In the same way the Dr. King made the Civil Rights Movement a personal cause for all Americans, a passionate re-reading of this Declaration would make that moment and that cause from so long ago, personally and vibrantly real to us today. And maybe, just maybe, help us understand what a special and precious thing America truly is, not just to us, but to the world.
The Declaration of Independence was not just words on a piece of vellum parchment. It was not floated to test the response. It was not a classroom project.
It was, and ever shall be, a cry for freedom.