Independence Day

The history of the United States of America is not the history of an ethnic group, or the history of people of any one race or religion.  It is the story of the drafting and signing of two documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions, the events that led up to it and the consequences that flowed from it.

The Declaration of Independence was, and still is, a radical document.  It affirms there is such a thing as a right of revolution.  It asserts that the only legitimate government is self-government.  It asserts that no government is legitimate if it denies basic human rights.  Very often Americans on the street, when confronted with the words of the Declaration without being told their source, refuse to sign it.

The Constitution was, and still is, a conservative document.  It sets limits on the will of the people.  It creates checks and balances.  It provides a basis for governmental authority.

The Fourth of July, commemorating the signing of the Declaration, is our great national holiday.  But loyalty to the Constitution is the basis of American loyalty.  The President of the United States and all other federal officers, down to the newest inductee into the armed forces, swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and so do immigrants when being naturalized as American citizens.

My friend David White some years back started a nice custom of holding a Fourth of July picnic in his back yard, in which we recited the Declaration.  Later we added related documents, such as the Declaration of Sentiments by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls on July 4, 1848, and selections from Frederick Douglass’ oration, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” in Rochester in 1852.

There were a couple of years in which David didn’t give his party.  The first time I felt disappointed, and then I reflected there was nothing to stop me from reciting the Declaration of Independence on my own.  So I did, alone in my house.  I also read the Constitution.

For us, as for Americans in 1848 and 1852, the Declaration and the Constitution are still the benchmarks by which we judge our government and ourselves as a people.  It’s good to stop and remind myself of what’s in them.


The Declaration of Independence.

The Constitution of the United States. (plain text version)

The Constitution of the United States.  (hypertext version)

The Declaration of Sentiments (Women’s Rights Convention)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? by Frederick Douglass. (excerpts)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? by Frederick Douglass. (full text)

List of links to other American historic documents.

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