In Philadelphia 223 years ago today, a group of men pledged "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" to launch an experiment in liberty.
"The declaration of American independence was the proud national instrument which first declared to nations that All Men are EQUAL," the Philadelphia newspaper Aurora reminded Americans 23 years after the declaration was adopted. It continued:
"This illustrious and immortal memorial of American wisdom and American virtue . . . as scintillated over the whole Universe: -- this grand and indelible register of Man's Right and of the wrongs of a nation at the hands of a tyrant gave at once a deadly blow to every class of meretricious distinctions and absurd titles -- It established the right of men . . . to govern themselves."
Even then, in 1799, independence was an unfinished project. The context for the Aurora's hymn to the Declaration was not a celebration of the past, but a warning of present dangers to liberty that the newspaper saw in "monarchical" tendencies in the administration of President John Adams.
In some ways the Declaration adopted on July 4, 1776, only ratified an independence the American colonies had already begun to exercise. Two months earlier, on May 10, the Continental Congress had adopted a resolution advising local representative assemblies to set up new governments in such form "as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general."
That meant bypassing existing governing institutions established by royal authority. Formal disavowals of colonial legitimacy began appearing in newspapers. The one in the Aurora on May 23, purported to speak on behalf of "We, the inhabitants of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia." It noted that the proposed new governments were to be founded "under the AUTHORITY of the PEOPLE," whereas Pennsylvania's existing assembly was "derived from our mortal enemy the King of Great-Britain."
"We therefore," the notice continued, "in this solemn manner, in behalf of ourselves and others, do hereby renounce and protest against the authority and qualification of the House for framing a new government."
What form self-government should take was already widely debated. In "Common Sense," Thomas Paine called for a single legislative chamber elected annually by the widest possible suffrage.
This was too democratic -- and thus potentially unstable -- for John Adams, who produced a pamphlet of his own calling for divided power and the check of a property-owning qualification for some elections.
This smacked of hierarchical privilege to Paine. "John was for independence because he expected to be made great by it," he later remarked, "but it was not difficult to perceive, for the surliness of his temper makes him an awkward hypocrite, that his head was as full of kings, queens and knaves as a pack of cards."
Adams was equally blunt in his assessment: "What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted Crapulous Mass is Tom Paine's Common Sense."
Personal rivalries did not derail the project of independence.
Writing the Declaration took barely three weeks. Adams was named to the drafting committee, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.
Jefferson's inclusion mystified Adams. "Mr. Jefferson had been now about a year a member of Congress, but had attended his duty in the house a very small part of the time, and when there, had never spoken in public," he later wrote. "During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together."
But he "had the reputation of a masterly pen; he had been chosen a delegate in Virginia in consequence of a very handsome public paper which he had written in the House of Burgesses, which had given him the character of a fine writer."
Jefferson's first draft, presented on June 19, opened up another controversy about the source of the rights the colonists were asserting.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," Jefferson had written; "that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable. . . ."
Basing human rights on natural creation seemed to deny a Creator's agency. Historically, divine right had been advanced as the justification for monarchy; but couldn't divine intention now be claimed as the reason for individual rights and equality?
Jefferson's next draft struck out "from that equal creation they derive rights" and replaced it with "they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights." In the final text, "inherent and inalienable" is replaced with "certain inalienable rights." Among these rights were said to be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There was further editing, much of it by Franklin. Jefferson's text was eventually slimmed down by nearly a third.