During President Reagan’s Farewell Speech delivered on national television from the Oval Office in the White House on January 11, 1989, he borrowed from a pilgrim’s observation that the United States of America is a “shiny city upon a hill.” Firmly committed to our founding principles, he believed our nation would not long endure if we ever abandon them —at least if we did so for too long. So, in his own eloquent but easily approachable manner, he was urging America to stay the course; don’t abandon them, promote and protect them.
Toward that end, and on the anniversary of our nation’s founding, it’s a worthwhile tradition to briefly revisit our our nation’s founding principles in the context of the documents within which they are enshrined. They have been instrumental in securing our liberty and prosperity, and the Good Lord willing, they shall continue to do so.
Against overwhelming odds, and while making tremendous sacrifices under the leadership of General George Washington, our founders fought and won our War of Independence. Washington would go on to become our first president after denying those who misguidedly wanted him to become king. Out of their deep respect and appreciation for the Virginia plantation owner turned revolutionary hero, and familiarity with life under a monarchy, some colonists clamored for a king. Obviously, they were blinded by sentiment and carried away by emotions, something of which we in modern times are all too familiar. Some of the jubilant colonists simply forgot the numerous injustices committed against them by their former monarch, King George III, even though his offenses were numerous and copiously listed in the Declaration of Independence. Happily, General Washington would have none of it. With an extraordinary and super-human act of humility and grace, he rejected the throne and paved the way for the establishment of our republic.
The Revolutionary War, as it is also known, had it’s official beginning on July 4, 1776 when the final draft of the Declaration was done. According to an official account, the process was long and arduous. The representatives from each of the thirteen original colonies participated in sweltering conditions long before the invention of air conditioning that takes the edge off hot and muggy summers. Participants in the historic proceedings at what would eventually become known as Independence Hall had to go without, heaven forbid, a daily iced latte or frappuccino. Dreadful, you say? Maybe so, for some. But I doubt that many if any of the delegates would have missed it for the world. From what I gather in reading various accounts, correspondence, and biographies, they seemed to sense that they were on the cusp of creating something very special.
Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, a well-crafted document that has few equals in beauty and brevity. Like Washington, he was a plantation owner with a lot at stake should the British prevail over the colonies. Treason was a capital offense at the time, as it still is today. Back then, losing faith in the monarchy and acting out against it generally resulted in the loss of one’s head. Of course we now know that his great courage in the face of certain death was rewarded. Among other honors, Jefferson was elected third president of the United States.
While drafting his magnum opus, “Jefferson was not aiming at originality.” Indeed, history informs us that that he was well-read and highly educated for the times, and that he and other founders had the benefit of learning from other nations in pursuit of “a more perfect union.” The thirteenth century Magna Carta from mother Britain is one document that is credited with having a tremendous influence on Jefferson. The Roman Empire’s republican form of government was another source of inspiration. It appears that Jefferson and the other founders wanted to avoid the mistakes of the past.
However, if you have ever wordsmithed by committee, then you can certainly appreciate the fact that editing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was pain-staking —to be polite about it. At several points along the way, the certainty that all delegates would agree on the Declaration was very much in doubt. In the end, twenty-five percent of the original text was cut, changes Jefferson referred to as “mutilations.” Of course, most of us can also relate to how pride of authorship could have been the reason for such an ungracious remark. Perhaps it was said in jest, and that this doesn’t translate well in writing. After all, this is a common phenomenon and understanding this makes me wonder how the likes of Jefferson would do in our Twitter era.
Regardless, while Jefferson may have bemoaned the rough handling of his literary baby, good faith compromises and concessions had to be made in order to reach unanimity among the colonies. This was an extraordinary goal among mortal beings. Having facilitated and participated in many planning sessions in which binding documents were created, I personally believe that the unanimous acceptance of the Declaration of Independence with life and property at stake was an act of God. This, perhaps, is why after dodging another British bullet in the War of 1812, our national leaders were inspired to establish the motto “In God we trust.” Imprinted on our coins today, it should remind us of our spiritual legacy.
While the abolition of slavery was one issue that did not make the final draft of the Declaration, were it not for the good faith efforts and persistence of the founders, most notably John Adams, who became our second president, the USA may not have been established at all, let alone conceived in liberty.
To paraphrase an old saying, behind every great man is a great woman. Abigail Adams, John’s wife and pen pal, deserves credit for inspiring and sustaining her husband during these trying times. With her love and support, Adams showed the world the importance of being true to one’s principles even though at times you may have to respectfully tolerate those who do not share them. If you believe some historical accounts, John Adams had to work on the respectful part all of his life as his blunt manner would likely have had most of his contemporaries considering him rather rude at times. Personality and manners aside, as a practicing lawyer he demonstrated the courage of his convictions before the war broke out. The story is one for the ages and one worth knowing in full. In short, he accepted the responsibility to defend a British soldier falsely accused of killing a colonist in cold blood. He prevailed in the case. How easy and convenient it would have been for him to have turned his back on that innocent man —and by doing so, his principles.
Adams is also credited, along with Jefferson and others, in fighting for the abolition of slavery within the Declaration of Independence, and in turn the Constitution. It had to be gut-wrenching for them to come to terms with the reality that it was a deal-breaker for the Southern block of colonies and that they would have to allow more time for the union to come to its senses on the matter. Sadly, neither one would live to see the day when President Lincoln and other Republican leaders in Congress would put an end to slavery.
The give and take during the editing of the Declaration was essential to the ratification of the Declaration, and this fact can not be overstated. It also shows the integrity of the delegates who by example paved the way for our long and storied history of a nation that promotes and upholds the rule of law. It wasn’t long before the amendment process of the Constitution of the United States became vitally important to our national heritage, and we owe our founding fathers for the example they set by honoring the rules established by the delegates who helped draft the Declaration and later the Articles of Cofederation.
However, it is also important to recall that our founders were very wary of centralized authority. The Articles of Confederation were carefully written in 1777 to ensure the sovereignty of each citizen and state. They were debated and revised so much that it it took until March 1, 1781 for them to be ratified. Moreover, it took another eight years before they were replaced by the Constitution on March 4, 1789. This became necessary in light of the fact that whenever interstate or “national” issues arose, the Confederation form of government proved insufficient and the establishment of our republic was deemed necessary.
A careful reading of each of the founding documents is not time-consuming, but it can be very rewarding, if not inspirational. The founding principles enshrined in them remain vitally important and relevant today. Today they are known as our First Principles, and include self-reliance, exemplified by the initiative taken by our founders, and personal liberty, as outlined in our Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments). They were crucial to the early success of our nation and essential to its continued existence and prosperity, other facts that cannot be overstated. By promoting and protecting our First Principles, we can help ensure that our country can long endure as a beacon of hope for freedom loving people everywhere.
On a more personal level, as co-founder of GetCurrentFast. com by American Newzine®, and drawing on over 40 years experience spent observing, starting, and leading various businesses and organizations, I noted a subtle change taking place over the years. The term “values” has generally replaced the term “principles” when leaders are expressing the foundational beliefs of their respective companies and institutions. While it may boil down to semantics, I sense that some leaders prefer values over principles since the former may change with the times while the latter is generally not subject to change.
Perhaps government and business leaders should be taking a cue from our founders. Regardless of whether or not our foundational beliefs are expressed as values or principles, in drafting, adopting, implementing, and enforcing them, we would be wise to ask ourselves, what would our founders do?
For our part, our company’s Guiding Principles are in the “About” section of our website. We like to think that Washington, Adams, and Jefferson would agree with our choice in terms, and that Jefferson is probably chuckling in his grave when he sees me, the primary author, wince at suggestions to make them shorter. TJ and I share initials (my dad called me TJ) —and perhaps even some pride of authorship.
Some history professors and scholars like to point out that John Adams preferred July 2 as the date on which the United States should celebrate it’s independence. He wrote in a letter to Abigail on July 3 that “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” He based his opinion on that fact that it was on July 2, 1776 that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence but the final draft was not completed and agreed upon until the fourth day.
Tradition has it celebrated on the later date, but either would suffice. After all, other major holidays are not celebrated on the exact historical day of the year, such as Christmas and Easter.
Should you find Early American history interesting, as I hope most of us do, then I can recommend an excellent way to become more knowledgeable about it at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home. Hillsdale College offers an online course entitled, “Introduction to the Constitution.” You can check it out here. The five-part series features Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College. It is sometimes offered for free.
I highly recommend this series for casual viewing, as well as an integral part of social studies curriculum from ages 6th grade on up. While the subject matter may be more suitable for high school and college students, anyone with a zeal for learning can benefit from it.
Lastly, one of my favorite musicals happens to present the story of the Declaration of Independence factually and with great humor. The personalities of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson are depicted with the backdrop of the drafting and adoption of the Declaration, one of the most important events in U.S. and world history. It’s titled, “1776” and is a must see for all history and musical fans. You can buy it through our store powered by Amazon.com here.
This column is republished annually on or before July 4.
Please celebrate responsibly.
— GCF —