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.
And so on and so forth. The Declaration of Independence. On one level, it was a statement by a band of colonies proclaiming their separation from the mother country. On another level, it was a declaration of war against Great Britain. And on another level, it formed a purpose statement for this new nation, a purpose statement that would take centuries to really live out, and we’re not yet at that point. The United States certainly has not always acted as though “all men are created equal.” And we still don’t today.
But the dream is there. And it’s a good dream to strive for. I read the Declaration of Independence every year on July 4, the anniversary of the date that 56 people signed the document, beginning of course with the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock. Each time I read it, it fills me with both hope and despair, despair that we seem to be drifting further and further from its ideals, yet hope that we can always get closer, always shift our culture toward more and more equality. Every year on July 4, I read this.
But maybe I shouldn’t. Because that might not actually be the anniversary of its signing. It might be August 2. Certainly the document was endorsed and approved on July 4. The United States began as a country with that declaration when the Continental Congress approved it that day. But the signatures all came later. A special embossed version of the Declaration was made over the summer, and the Congress reconvened in August. At that meeting, each of the delegates affixed his signature. It sounds reasonable — the governmental body did something important and official on one day, and then decided that the moment needed to be preserved with something special: almost a “commemorative copy” of the Declaration, which was produced and signed a little later, when time allowed. However, it’s not that simple. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all wrote that it was signed by all the members on July 4. Their notes disagree with what looks to be historical fact, and these three were no slouches. Two of the first three presidents of the US, plus one whom half the country today thinks was president. And one of them wrote the Declaration of Independence. You’d expect these three to know what they were talking about. And yet, there are also notes in the “Secret Journal” of the Continental Congress that the creation of the embossed copy was ordered on July 15, and that all 56 signatures were affixed on August 2. So, it’s a mystery!
Of course, in the long run, it really doesn’t matter. What’s important about the Declaration of Independence is what the words and signatures mean, not when they were put on parchment. But it is a sign of the near-mythological significance of the document. Legends have appeared, seemingly contradictory legends. The books and writings that form the basis of any religion get surrounded by legends like this. And the American ideal is rather close to a religion. It takes faith to believe in an ideal like this. It takes faith to see it at work in a country that is so much a work in progress.
Maybe I’ll re-read it in both July and August this year. I might just need it to keep my faith right now.