The Declaration embodies the revolutionary ideas of Enlightenment England, and particularly John Locke's philosophy of natural rights (inalienable, God-given rights, existing prior to the formation of the political system) and limited government. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, borrowed liberally from Locke's writings. The document includes three basic components.
- First is the call to rebellion. This is the announcement that the colonists are breaking free from the mother country, captured in the Declaration's preamble: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
- Second is the catalog of grievances. This is the long list of violations and usurpations committed by the Crown and denounced by the American revolutionaries. For example the Declaration denounces the dissolution of the local colonial legislatures, the quartering of British soldiers in American homes, and the imposition of taxes on the colonists without consent. The list of grievances is lengthy and comprises most of the Declaration's text.
- Third is the statement of values and good goverment. This is the most famous part of the Declaration: "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." This statement is considered among the most lofty statements on human freedom every written. Countries around the world look to the words of the Declaration in their aspirations for liberty and equality. Vaclav Havel, for example, is said to have read the Declaration back in 1991 at the time of Czechoslovakia's democratic revolution.
The United States has not always lived up to its own values -- the institution of slavery, under which the promise of equality was denied to the black American population until after the Civil War and beyond -- is the most glaring example. But the country has grown, and we've experienced a process of democratization that continues in contemporary struggles for civil rights. Few other countries in the world today are as free as is the United States and its people.
Jules Crittenden, in his commentary today at the Boston Herald, with reference to the war on terror, stresses the nation's enduring fight to preserve, protect, and expand these rights:
Have a great holiday!
Go to the park, go to the beach, go out into your back yard and enjoy it. It’s yours. Today marks 230 years of this. The greatest social experiment of all time, as it has been called, which began with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” The 1776 legal brief that formalized the American rebellion has been called our nation’s gift to all of humanity and to history. But like everything in life, what it represents is not something that begins and ends with a declaration. That was only a statement of intent that, subsequently and since then, has had to be acted upon. The fight has continued unabated since then to defend it, to determine exactly what it is and to expand upon it. The fight has continued on bloody battlefields, in the streets, in the halls of government and, not least by any means, in the courts. The great, simple, frustrating beauty of this thing was demonstrated the other day. A narrow Supreme Court majority voted against the Bush administration’s desire to hold military tribunals for unlawful combatants, captured elsewhere, who are not citizens of this country and have never set foot here. The president, the high court said, does not have the authority to do so. Congress, outraged and exasperated by the court’s decision, immediately vowed to enact the necessary laws that will allow the president to proceed with the defense of our nation and our liberty from this insidious enemy. The Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision and the reaction to it form a neat encapsulation of the beauty, simplicity and hazards of the independence and the form of government those 18th century lawyers, gentlemen, innkeepers and farmers gave us. It is a process wrought with irony, absurdity, tragedy, outrage and determination. It has always been a messy business, requiring constant course corrections.