The Suicide Note
We live in an age of brevity, where tools like texting and Twitter have reduced our communications into barely understandable shorthand (one might inquire "y u l8?" of a tardy friend), and where Instagram and SnapChat have reverted us further into hashtagged pictograms (#digitalcaveart?). But the seminal document of this nation, our Declaration of Independence, was authored in a different time, when men sat at writing tables to collect their thoughts and put pen to paper to express them, often with great rhetorical elegance and verbosity.
Our culture of communication has changed to the point where we lack the patience to read anything of length. Worse, we sometimes lack the focus to comprehend the depth of what we're reading. We end up rushing through our meal and tasting hardly any of its flavor. With the anniversary of our Declaration's signing upon us, though, we'd like to afford you the opportunity to slow down. We'd like you to not only look at the words but really see them this time.
The Declaration of Independence isn't some dusty document written as a formality between governments. It isn't a letter-that-started-a-big-war-and-then-America-was-born-the-end. It isn't a blip on an infographic or a bolded term in a textbook.
The Declaration of Independence is a suicide note. We owe it to the authors to listen to what they were saying.
What they knew....
For years, the Crown had been too busy prosecuting a war with France to pay much mind to the American colonies, which were left to manage their own business. And, as it turned out, they were quite good at it. Once the war with France was concluded, Britain desperately needed cash and the powers that be began squeezing it from the colonists in the forms of tariffs and taxes, constricting the local autonomy at first through regulation and later through force. The colonial delegates'' objections were ignored or derided in the halls of Parliament, the very body that was supposed to represent the interests of the common people.
The men who authored and signed the Declaration of Independence were not starving, desperate peasants with nothing left to lose. They weren't political philosophers, far removed from their topic and beyond the reach of those they were criticizing. They were successful businessmen, lawyers, ministers, merchants, and physicians. They had social status and comfort if not outright wealth. They had everything to lose and all they had to do to keep it all was to play along with the status quo.
But they knew that the status quo was wrong. That the heavy hand of government was unfair. That the colonists deserved better treatment than what they were receiving.
The signers also knew that they were committing treason. There were no "Americans" at that time. There were American colonists - who were still British subjects, despite the fact that Massachusetts had been declared "in rebellion" for over a year in 1776. And, while we can happily hop on Facebook today, complain about the government, and boldly declare that we "will not comply" because the Administration lacks legitimacy, imagine that making such a public declaration would likely be arrested by federal troops (this is precisely what happened to signer Richard Stockton of New Jersey). The word of the Crown and Parliament were law, and subjects were bound by allegiance to follow it.
They knew that one punishment for treason was death by hanging, and also the seizure by the Crown of all property they owned. This meant that their executions would also very likely condemn their wives and children to poverty, to public shunning, and an early death themselves. There was nothing worse than a traitor, and that stigma would follow their families in all their future social and public dealings.
They knew that the odds against them were astronomical. Fewer than five percent of their fellow colonists supported them even in spirit, much less in action or materiel. They were challenging - and losing to - one of the most professional and successful armies to take the field since the legions of Rome. And if their political emissaries were already being ignored by Parliament, there would be little chance of being given more credence in negotiations once they were declared traitors, and in open rebellion.
In short, each man signing the Declaration knew that this relatively small action of putting pen to paper, putting his name on this document, placed everything he cherished beneath the executioner's axe.
It was suicide. But it was preferable to servitude.
What they wrote....
The document is written in the language of its time, filled with clauses and commas, preambles and prose. But read between the lines and understand what they were saying. The first two paragraphs could be distilled into just this:
"Our rebellion is shocking and we feel we owe it to the world to explain why we're doing it. We believe that a government's role is to protect the individual rights of those governed, and only their consent can give that government legitimacy. When government instead limits and restricts those rights, and loses that consent, it must be replaced. It would be stupid to do something this enormous without good reason, and we have been willing to put up with a lot to try to avoid this. But our government is moving us closer and closer to complete tyranny and we cannot let this get any worse. Here is just a small list of examples...."
That list includes some things unique to the time but, chillingly, many are equally applicable today. History has a tendency to rhyme and its poetry is not always pleasant.
It is long and the language is stiff and convoluted by modern standards. But every freedom we enjoy, over two centuries later, stems from this suicidal willingness of these men to sacrifice everything they held dear for the opportunity to make their own choices in life.
Don't recite it. Don't skim it. Read it and really hear their words. Forgive the misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Look up the words you don't understand. But read it - and try to put yourself in their shoes, if you can.
We owe them that much.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
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.
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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Happy 239th birthday to our Republic - if we can keep it.
Yours in Liberty,
Descendents of Liberty Press