Our View: Independence: An unfinished work




Much to John Adams' surprise, Americans will celebrate Independence Day on Wednesday, which is July 4. 


Adams had assumed July 2, the day in 1776 on which the Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring its independence from Great Britain, would be celebrated as Independence Day by future generations. 


August 2 might have also been reasonably chosen as the day for the celebration. That was the day the document was first available for the 56 delegates to sign the document. All but a few signed it on that day. 


How about June 7, the day the first resolution was passed declaring independence and the day that a committee of five delegates was chosen to write a document explaining the reasons for the break with Great Britain? 


July 4 was the day the delegates heard and approved the document it ordered on June 7, but historian Pauline Maier said the choice of July 4 may have been the function of a human frailty: They simply forgot the anniversary. 


Maier contends that, in early July of 1777, delegates had forgotten that almost a year had passed since they had voted for independence. It wasn't until July 3 that Congress remembered it and declared the following day, July 4, as Independence Day. 


That there were so many days that might have been chosen as Independence Day illustrates something worth noting. Independence was not an epiphany, not an idea that emerged completely formed and communicated on a single day. 


In truth, the nation's independence was discussed, debated, altered and amended for months. In fact, when the Second Continental Congress convened in the spring of 1775, there wasn't even a consensus for declaring independence. The idea emerged slowly, incrementally over time. 


Thomas Jefferson wrote the drafts of the document but it was altered and amended by the other committee members, which including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. 


Most changes were subtle -- choices of words or phrasing. However, one major alteration removed a passage condemning Great Britain's continuing support of the slave trade, which was one of the litany of causes offered by the document explaining why it was necessary for the colonies to demand independence. 


Aside from the opening passage, with its reference to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the Declaration of Independence was not a literary masterpiece. It was primarily a grocery list of complaints against George III. 


Jefferson said the purpose of the document he crafted was not to present a new idea to the world, but rather, to plainly state the American point of view on independence and why separation was necessary. 


Among the grievances, there is something that resonates today. 


The king "has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither..." 


So even before America became its own nation, there was a debate over immigration. 


Wednesday, we celebrate Independence Day as a great moment in our nation's history. 


We should also recognize that just as Independence was an idea that had to be formulated and articulated through long hours of debate and discussion and supported through great sacrifices, our efforts -- as our Constitution would later note -- to become "a more perfect union" is not complete. 


That work falls to every generation of Americans. 


Wednesday is the say we celebrate our Independence. It should also be a day when recognize our duty in this great unfinished work.



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