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The Declaration: Its Meaning Today

AMERICANS have, over the years, done well by John Adams's admonition that Independence Day be celebrated with "games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forevermore."

Except for one thing: He got the date wrong. He expected July 2, the day the Continental Congress adopted Richard Henry Lee's simple resolution of independence, to be the date remembered forever. Instead, Americans observe July 4, when the Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, which articulated more fully the colonists' rationale for deciding to break with England. It was "an appeal to the tribunal of the world," as Jefferson called it later.

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What does that appeal mean for us today? The first paragraph is a little windy ("When in the course of human events..."), but the second follows as unmistakable as trumpet peals: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...."

Some questions quite important to moderns are left dangling: Were blacks "men"? Were women? And much of the Declaration has to do with the colonists' grievances against George III.

Yet the Declaration sets forth a universal and timeless ideal.

"The enduring meaning in the document is that people have a right to alter or abolish their government," observes Stephen Grossbart, a historian at the University of Florida. The Declaration acknowledges that "revolution can be necessary not only for the creation of but for the maintenance of democracy."

The colonists took a notably short time to get from proud outpost of empire to simmering revolutionaries. Under George III the imperial system changed significantly, impinging on the colonists' prerogatives in such matters as the tenure of judges. Until 1775, even the most restless of the colonists wanted only a return to the situation of 1763.

But then in January 1776 Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" sold 125,000 copies. Arguing that the people, not the government, were sovereign, Paine made it legitimate to question the king. "He figuratively killed the king," Professor Grossbart says. When Jefferson took up this theme of popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed, he "was not so much creating a belief as echoing a popular belief racing through America."

As an ideal informing American government policy, however, especially foreign policy, the Declaration of Independence remains less than fully realized. Gifford Doxsee, professor of history at Ohio University, is one of many Americans whose travels have convinced him that many countries, especially in the third world, are "disillusioned with the way American foreign policy has diverged from the ideals of the Declaration of Independence." The United States is seen as an intervening power in places like Pan ama, Grenada, or Iraq. "We are not seeing a world in which all people are created equal," Professor Doxsee says.

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He sees a need to "develop a global sense of all people as brothers and sisters." To reinforce his point, he tells of a brief Memorial Day talk he gave at the local American Legion post. Although a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he told not of that set of experiences but rather of a trip to East Germany he and his wife made in 1983.

They found the little Gasthaus where he had been billeted as prisoner of war, still run by the same family. He found the woman who had saved the lives of three of his dying comrades by getting permission to transfer them to the regular part of the inn and give them proper food. "She threw her arms around me as if I were a long-lost son. I hadn't really known her, and yet we had been through this searing experience together."

He says he was "flabbergasted" at the response to his talk, which was broadcast over local radio and given front-page newspaper coverage; his implicit plea to move beyond the hostilities of the moment, whatever those might be, to a sense of reconciliation, obviously struck a chord. "The great documents of our nation's founding are expressed in universal terms. We need to get back to the vision of the earlier days."

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