The principles of the Declaration of Independence were already fiercely held in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans before July 4, 1776.
When the Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm visited the American colonies in 1748 to find seeds useful for agriculture, he called it a place where “a newly married man can, without difficulty, get a spot of ground where he may comfortably subsist with his wife and children,” and “the liberties he enjoys are so great that he considers himself a prince of his possessions.”
Kalm’s observations of the colonists’ liberties and culture came 28 years before the Continental Congress wrote and approved the Declaration of Independence, and his thoughts were neither wrong nor unique for the time.
Colonial America was novel in that, generally, the people who worked the land, owned the land. (The stain of slavery in the southern colonies was obviously a big exception.) Nowhere else in the world could boast this, and it helped form the foundation for the unique appreciation – need, even – for freedom and independence among colonists. As Kalm and plenty of others observed, America was different. When their British rulers levied various new taxes from London and insisted on crushing resistance in the colonies, citizens feared they would be returned to the serfdom that pervaded the old world.
When we examine the Declaration of Independence – the document forming the birthday that we’ll celebrate Sunday – we often do so through a media and popular culture filter that explains it as the grand ideas of a few men. Certainly Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and others deserve a great deal of credit. But to accept that only their ideas exist in the words of the Declaration is to miss the context of the era.
Examples of this missed context are everywhere. In a recent History Channel documentary discussing the Declaration, one of the celebrity commentators says of Jefferson’s preamble to the document that it was, “the first time anybody had bothered to write that down.” An Air Force commander this week, in writing about the appreciation for our nation’s founding, said of the founding fathers, “It was their courage and desire for freedom that inspired their declaration of independence....”