Two hundred and 38 years ago today, the final wording of this nation’s Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Dunlap Broadsides — the first printed copies of the declaration — were circulated throughout the 13 colonies.
The United States already had declared its freedom. That was done two days before by the Continental Congress. But on July 4, 1776, the founding fathers pledged that this new nation would be free from the British Empire (although fighting in the Revolutionary War started more than a year before the declaration).
For an emerging nation, it came to be a defining moment. The one single-most defining line has been said to contain the most “potent and consequential words in American history.” Even today, the line — “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” — remains a standard for this nation.
It wasn’t always the case. Even then, there was strong political division over whether the United States should seek independence. It was in its infancy, and many people felt the British rule offered a necessary protection. Others thought the nation was in danger of being a new version of France.
By the late 1820s — spirited perhaps by the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826 — printed copies of the Declaration of Independence were being widely distributed. Slowly, celebrations spread from the larger cities to smaller towns through the growing nation. In 1870, Congress declared July 4 as a national holiday.
Just a month before dying, Jefferson wrote his last letter ever, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption. He recognized the increasing importance of the document.
“All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. … For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them,” he wrote.
That’s the beauty of the document we celebrate today with parades, picnics and fireworks. The founding fathers had no way of peering into the future to know each generation would raise specific issues, but they seemed to know that the answers could all be found so long as we remembered the most important things the Declaration of Independence establishes: That everyone is equal and should be treated equally; that the government is responsible for ensuring the rights of the people; and that government answers to the people whom it governs.
Those are messages worth remembering and celebrating.