“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.”
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are what our Founding Fathers wrote into history as one of the bases for American freedom when they signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. A true American understands the significance of this treasured document, but have you ever wondered why these three ideals were chosen? Why didn’t they choose something else?
In this first blog of a mini-series looking at the values of The Declaration of Independence, let’s take a look at why this document was written in the first place to give context on why “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were so important.
The Origins of The Declaration of Independence
When the Declaration was written, the American colonies were at war with Great Britain and had been for over a year. (And in fact, would be for a number of years to come after this was signed.) Patrick Henry had already declared, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in response to how Great Britain was treating the colonies. After a handful of battles between Great Britain and America, the Olive Branch Treaty was written by the American government (then called the Continental Congress) in hopes of reconciling their relationship with Britain. They urged the king personally to help with this effort. King George III refused to even look at the Olive Branch Treaty in Spring 1775, and instead declared the colonies to be in direct rebellion. This catalyzed the war effort for Great Britain to attempt to defeat George Washington and the Continental Army. The call to formally declare independence from Great Britain came after this snub from King George III, and the draft was written in just one day by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776, just as battle was really heating up. It was formally endorsed by Congress on July 4, 1776 and officially signed August 2, 1776 by most of the Congress members.
The Declaration of Independence wasn’t a hollow statement of entitlement or a flippant decision to be rebellious. Instead it outlined the numerous offenses of King George III and his government against the colonies. Due to the King’s offenses, our Founding Fathers so articulately shared their reasoning for declaring independence and establishing the virtues that make America great even to this day.
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another….. a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
The Declaration then goes on to outline such offenses as keeping standing armies within the colonies without consent during times of peace; calling together legislators at unusual, uncomfortable and faraway locations to wear them down into compliance; making judges dependent on the king’s will alone for the sake of keeping their tenure and salary; cutting off American trade with all parts of the world; imposing taxes without consent; deprivation of the benefits of trial by jury; transporting Americans overseas for trials of false offenses; plundering seas, ravaging coasts, burning towns and destroying peoples’ lives.
The majority of The Declaration of Independence is the list of wrongdoings by King George III! When you read through the list, it’s completely understandable why the colonies wanted to separate and form their own nation. Reading through even this brief, paraphrased list, you can better understand why our Founding Fathers believed so intently that the basic rights of all mankind should be life (because the King was destroying lives), liberty (because the King was seeking to take away all freedoms of the American people), and the pursuit of happiness (since the King sought to squelch and suppress Americans with more and more taxes, cutting off their trade, falsely accusing them of crimes that never occurred, etc.).
The American people are indebted to these Founding Fathers and their boldness to stand up to injustice, even if it meant going to war. In the next blogs, we’ll take a look at each of these values and how they’ve shaped America into what it is today.