Life & Glory

It is scarcely necessary here to present the history of that document originally entitled “the Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America,” which has come to be known as the Declaration of Independence. The story of its birth has been recounted many times. It is known how, in the effort to withstand the ever-extending encroachments of the English king and his ministers upon the rights of the American colonists, there assembled in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776 the Continental Congress.

It is known that even at that time the idea of entire independence of the mother country was entertained by but few, even of those who assembled in Independence Hall. It is known how that, on June 7, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, introduced his famous resolution declaring independence, and how, after an almost secret debate of three days, it was decided to postpone action until July 1, and to appoint a committee to draw up in the meantime a declaration suitable to present to the world if independence should be decided upon.

It is known how this committee assigned the work of writing the document to the young Virginian who was able of pen but silent in debate, and how, during those June days in a quiet room in the outskirts of the city, at a small desk made especially for his use while attending the Congress, he wrote the great document, and read it to two of his colleagues before submitting it to the entire committee. It is known how that, with very slight changes, it was laid before Congress on June 28, and that immediately after, on July 2, the resolution of Lee was adopted, and that this was the date which John Adams, the most enthusiastic of all for independence, at once declared would “be the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” and be solemnized from this time forward forevermore.”

And it is known how, not with the noise of trumpets and a great demonstration, but as became it, like all great events which mark the epochs in the cause of truth and justice and that bear in them the seed that are to spring up in ever-increasing blessing to humanity as the generations go by, it was quietly adopted on July 4, published on July 6, and read with simple ceremony in the State House yard on July 8.

And it is known how, on August 2, the serious work of signing began, relieved only by such grim humor as, “We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately.”

And it is known that the document did not receive the signatures of all its 56 signers on that day, but that it was weeks and even months before all the names were attached to it.

And it is known, too, on what seems to be good authority, that the Declaration of Independence was not the first document in America to declare independence of Great Britain. On receipt of the news of Lexington and Concord, in May 1775, citizens of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, met in Charlotte and adopted a document declaring their independence of Great Britain and denying her authority over the colonists.

And it is known, or it was known for upwards of 100 years, by the American people and all the world, that with the advent of that Declaration a new era had come in human history, a new day had dawned for the sons of men. And it was not in the mere fact that revolution against tyranny had begun, that independence of England had been declared, that this was so. People had fought against oppression before; nations had contended for independence from time immemorial. No; the American Revolution for independence comprehended more than that.

And here we come to the true and peculiar glory of the Declaration of Independence, to the living and eternal principles which vitalized it and made it greater than all state papers that had ever been before it. Never had any nation before proclaimed “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 a 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.”

“Thus was annihilated the despotic doctrine . . . which had become venerable, if not absolutely hallowed, by the precedents of a thousand years—the doctrine of the divine right of kings; and in the place of the old, false, despotic theory of the sovereignty of the government and the subjection of the people, there was declared the self-evident truth—the subjection of government and the sovereignty of the people.” Thus it was declared that “government is but a piece of the political machinery, framed and set up by the people, by which they would make themselves secure in the enjoyment of the inalienable rights which they already possess as men; which they have by virtue of being men in society and not by virtue of government; which were theirs before government was; which are their own in the essential meaning of the term, and ‘which they do not hold by any sub-infeudation, but by direct homage and allegiance to the Owner and Lord of all’ who has endowed them with those rights.”

And in thus annihilating the arrogant pretensions and despotic doctrines of kings and governments, there was annihilated the arrogant, despotic and blasphemous doctrines and assumptions of popes and popery by which the souls of men were intimidated and enslaved by outward coercion and tyranny. The great truths of human equality and of government limited to the powers which are conferred upon it by the consent of the governed forever annihilate the idea that any man, any government, any human authority or organization, can have the right to control the consciences of men. When the rights of the people were given the supreme place, the authority of tyranny, under whatever name or form, was swept away.

Thus it is in the impregnable foundation upon which they based their action, the rock upon which the fathers chose to establish themselves in resisting oppression and declaring independence, that is found the high and peculiar glory that attaches to the struggle they waged and the great document they proclaimed.

Take from the Declaration those few sentences which go back of all governments and all human institutions, which grasp the throne of the Infinite by holding up as immutable and inalienable the rights which exist by virtue of the existence of God and His creatures—take from the Declaration these sentences, and its life and glory are gone. Then it becomes indeed what the great Lincoln declared it would be when thus emasculated: “Mere rubbish—old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won.”

Taken from The Sentinel of Christian Liberty, July 1902, pp. 383-386. The author was the then editor John D. Bradley.