Tuesday, July 04, 2006

July 4: Independence Day

Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Thomas Jefferson, only 33 years old at the time, was chosen to write a draft of the Declaration. One of the masterworks of both literary and political prose, the Declaration opens with a 71-word sentence that although long is clearly and precisely worded:

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 (1).

Although the preamble is Jefferson’s, a comparison of his drafts shows that he was influenced by others like John Locke and an earlier Declaration of Rights written by the Virginian George Mason. Another clear influence was Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ published in January 1776 used plain language to ignite revolutionary fervor in the colonists. In fact, Paine gave us the modern sense of the word “revolution” as change, instead of a term used to describe the movement of the planets.

In addition to being influenced by others, Jefferson drafts underwent 40 changes and 630 deleted words as drafts were presented to the Committee of Five and the Congress. The date on the Declaration of Independence reads July 4, 1776, but a more accurate date is probably July 2nd when the actual proposal to declare independence was ratified. According to Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, only two of the 57 signers of the Declaration did so on July 4th, Charles Thomson and John Hancock. Hancock's large signature became synonymous with signing your name, but not until 1903).

The official signing did not take place until August 2nd and the names of the signers, for fear of retaliation, were not released until January 1777. Signing such a document was no small act. It was considered treason, and according to Bryson: “The penalty for treason was to be hanged, cut down while still alive, disemboweled and forced to watch your organs burned before your eyes, then beheaded and quartered” (2).

Stories of the Declaration of Independence being read in Philadelphia on July 4th to the ringing of the Liberty Bell are a myth since the first public reading was on July 8th , and “there is no record of any bells being rung. Indeed, though the Liberty Bell was there, it was not so called until 1847 . . . . (1)

One year later, however, on July 4, 1777 there is a record of celebrations and parades on the first anniversary of independence. It is also on this date that a new word appeared: fireworks, which previously had been called rockets.

Today’s Challenge: 27 Reasons to Celebrate Independence
In addition to picnics and fireworks, take a moment to read the complete Declaration of Independence today. You might even print up a copy and distribute one of the 27 grievances to each of your fellow partygoers.

Quote of the Day: The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. –Thomas Jefferson

1 – Declaration of Independence.

2 - Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.

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