THE MASONRY MONTHLY
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WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT
E very American knows that the Fourth of July commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — it’s also called Independence Day, after all. The story behind the document, however, gets less attention than it deserves. It’s a fascinating tale, culminating with the birth of the United States of America as we know it. The Road to Declaration Even after the early battles of the American Revolution, which began in earnest during April of 1775, it was unclear what shape the rebellion would take. At that point, independence was still far from certain. As the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in May of that year, two groups formed around polar opinions. “The fundamental issue between them was were they fighting for their rights as Englishmen within the British Empire, or were they going to fight for independence?” says historian Richard Slotkin. It was not an easy choice, and both sides held passionate opinions. As the calendar changed to 1776, those in favor of breaking from King George III began to gain momentum. The growth of the revolutionary movement had a number of causes, but two in particular stand out. In late 1775, King George III spoke to Parliament with the goal of enlarging the Royal Army and Navy to quash the rebellion. He went so far as to solicit help from foreign mercenaries. Word of this decision reached the colonies in January 1776, making reconciliation seem less likely than ever before. During the same month, Thomas Paine published his famous pamphlet “Common Sense,” which advocated for outright independence. “The custom of all Courts is against us, and will be so, until by an independence we take rank with other nations,” Paine wrote. “Common Sense” was wildly popular, selling more than 150,000 copies in its first weeks of publication, and created a groundswell of colonist support for independence. Drafting the Document Once a route forward was agreed upon, Congress set about drafting a formal document to dissolve all ties with Great Britain. They assigned a group of five congressmen, now known as the Committee of Five, to begin work on what would become the Declaration of Independence. That group comprised John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Most people believed that Adams, one of the earliest supporters of revolution, should be the man to pen the document. Adams, on the other hand, was insistent that Jefferson was the man for the job.
Not much is known about how Jefferson wrote the document, but we are certain that he presented it to Congress on June 28, 1776. The original draft was heavily revised over the next few days with input from all Congress members. This revision process coincided with convincing the final holdout states to move toward independence. By July 2, independence had been decided, with 12 states voting in favor, one absenting, and zero against. Jefferson thought that July 2 would become a national holiday as a result of this vote. Turns out he was two days off. That’s because two days later, the final text of the Declaration was approved and sent to the printer, and this event became the moment synonymous with the birth of our nation. The Power of the Prose “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.” While this remarkable passage is the one everyone remembers, it’s only a small portion of the Declaration. Structurally, the text proceeds like a classic example of a rhetorical argument. It begins by proposing that if a government is oppressive and unjust, it should be overthrown. Then, it lists the ways the British government has been unjust to its colonial citizens. Finally, it concludes that because of these grievances, it is time for the U.S. to establish a government of its own. It’s also a literary achievement, full of timeless sentences that are as compelling to read today as when they were written. Somehow, the text achieves both clarity of argument and an overflow of emotion. It was so powerful that it stirred revolutionary emotions across the world, most notably in France. This Fourth of July, why not take the time to read the Declaration of Independence? It’s something few U.S. citizens do, and you’ll likely find it about as awe-inspiring as the biggest display of fireworks you can imagine. –The Declaration of Independence
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