Happy Independence Day! I was in Washington last July 4th, when I shared the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore. This year we’re at the National Mall for President Trump’s “Salute to America” address.
I’ll share Charles G. Mills’s reflection on the Declaration of Independence:
The main draftsman of the document was Thomas Jefferson, probably a Deist, but it blended the thinking of Deists, Puritans, Anglicans, and a Catholic, all of whom shared a belief in natural law and of traditional English liberty.
This day, however, did not come in a vacuum or suddenly.
Englishmen, after a few unsuccessful attempts, founded a permanent colony in Virginia in 1607, and in Massachusetts in 1620. For about a hundred years the inhabitants of the English colonies thought of themselves as Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen, and Irish. In the early 1700s, they all began to think of themselves also as Britons. Indeed Georgia, the last of the colonies, was created as a British, not an English colony.
Americans began to think of themselves as American, not British. In 1753, the French in Canada invaded what is now Ohio. This led to the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. This left the Americans with a bad taste in their mouths from the British Army. Americans played a major role in our victory. George Washington won one of the major battles. The colonies sent large militias to war. Massachusetts alone sent eight regiments and two generals. The British Army, however, did not recognize the ranks of American generals, colonels and majors, treating them as mere captains. The conduct of the British soldiers was a scandal to the pious American militiamen.
The British government wanted to keep its troops in America after the war but wanted the colonies to pay for them. In 1765 it passed the Stamp Act, which repudiated the long-established practice of having American taxes determined by colonial legislative bodies and replaced it by taxation by the British Parliament. The Stamp Act was so unenforceable in enough of America that it was repealed and replaced by laws giving a monopoly of the tea trade in America to the East India Company and taxing the importation of tea into America.
This led to a number of hostile acts on both sides. Some Bostonians threw a shipload of tea into the harbor and burned a ship. The British cancelled the Charter of Massachusetts, blockaded Massachusetts, and fired on and killed several people on the streets of Boston. The Americans convened a Continental Congress to provide some America-wide policy. At that time, it decided not to declare independence or to elect an American Parliament.
Open war broke out in 1775. By the summer of 1776 it was clear that America and Great Britain should go their separate ways. A Continental Congress was reconvened. Most of it favored independence, but America’s leaders wanted unanimity. With some difficulty it was achieved. There were a number of Americans who would remain loyal to Britain for the rest of their lives. Some went to Canada, some found a way to get along with an independent America.
There was probably a pro-British majority in Georgia, but Georgia decided to send the only Georgian who was familiar with the question of independence to the Continental Congress, thereby achieving unanimity of the states. In the end three Georgians signed the Declaration.
On July 4, the Declaration of Independence, mostly the draftsmanship of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was signed. Virginia, New York, and New England provided most of the main spokesmen for independence. Charles Carroll of Maryland, the most prominent Catholic layman in America, signed, probably one of the reasons that religious liberty would grow so quickly after independence.
The war would continue until 1783, when Great Britain finally decided that the cost of continuing it was too great. It would take more than another five years for us to get a Constitution and Bill of Rights. It would take another war (1812-1815) with Britain before Great Britain decided to leave us alone.
The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary idea, but it was also a carefully written justification of American independence under both natural law and English Common Law. It is over 250 years old, but it has aged well and deserves careful study by not only students but all Americans.