As we approach July 4, 2013, the United States finds itself in the midst of what some may describe as an existential crisis. Our global influence is threatened by the emergence of new competitors like China, the rebirth of old adversaries in the form of Putin’s Russia, and the on-going turbulence in the Middle East. Here at home, we appear to be a country that is hopelessly divided across an entire spectrum of issues that, at their core, have us questioning our very roles and responsibilities as citizens. We find ourselves asking, “What does it mean to be an American?” As in such past instances of national uncertainly: the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights era for example, we must look to our founding document for our answer.
Our war with Great Britain had already begun before the delegates had arrived in Philadelphia. The 56 men of the Continental Congress realized that in seeking to divorce themselves from the rule of their mother country they would be committing their fledgling nation, comprised of 13 colonies, to a collective action that must be understood by both its citizenry and their global peers. Thus, they began their explanation with an introduction that demonstrated their understanding of the seriousness of their actions:
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation”.
In declaring the collective colonies a new nation, the members of Congress realized that what they were proposing was profoundly different from the monarchies that were the predominant form of governance throughout the world. The state that they were proclaiming was to be based on expressed ideas as to the relations between men that were profoundly different than rule by birthright and decree. As a result it was imperative that this philosophy be openly shared and clearly expressed to its readers:
“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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
These were the galvanizing principles that were to lead the new country forward.
The Declaration of Independence serves as the touchstone of our shared heritage because it speaks to the values that have guided our nation for over 230 years. The men that gathered in Philadelphia from June through July in 1776 were profoundly aware of the significance of their actions, but none could imagine that the principles that they put to paper would serve as their country’s continued source of reverence and strength throughout our times of national triumph and those of our deepest despair. They embody what we as a people hold dear and set forth the goals that we continue to strive for. They honor the rights of the individual and bind us together to ensure that they are not infringed upon. The Declaration is our guiding light, and is needed most when the path of our nation’s direction is covered with a shroud comprised of our own misunderstandings, confusion and fears.
In many ways, the Declaration of Independence is a pact between all of us as citizens. It carefully prescribes our political and natural relationships to each other. It embodies the unique ideal that has separated us from our counterparts in the family of nations for over two centuries. It, at once, both illuminates our fundamental rights as men while making us sacredly pledge ourselves to their protection. In short, it provides the answer to the question, “what does it mean to be an American?” This relationship is best illustrated in the Declaration’s final sentence. It applies today as much as it did when 56 men signed their names to the document over 230 years ago:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred honor”.
We at Compass wish you a happy Fourth of July.