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Our Sacred Honor: Remembering the Path to Independence

Their economic policy dictated by powers outside their control, their laws being passed and cases adjudicated in courts beyond their shores, capricious taxation and tariffs rampant, these British subjects were fed up.

And so, on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, this brave band determined to claim their natural rights. The approval of a declaration of independence that day announced the intentions of the American colonists to sever their ties with their British motherland and forge a new path.

“This was done reluctantly,” said Tracy Leavelle, Ph.D., associate dean for humanities and fine arts at Creighton University and an associate professor of history. “It took a long time for the founders to see themselves as anything other than British. Even as the signing is happening, they see themselves as British citizens protecting their British rights.”

Leavelle noted the interesting confluence of what was happening 240 years ago in the British colonies in America with what happened June 23 in Britain itself, as a majority of Britons voted to leave the economic bloc of the European Union, in a move popularly known as Brexit.

Following a series of unpopular and sometimes forceful moves by the British crown, including the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Acts and the Boston Massacre, the colonists felt stern notice to King George III was in order. The Revolutionary War was already more than a year old and the Declaration of Independence put into written words what the nascent nation was fighting for.

Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration comprises some of the most recognizable and stirring language in American history, but the bulk of the document is a litany of grievances the colonists had against the King and his government.

“The people in the colonies felt there had been many things done against them and things that had not been done for them,” Leavelle said. “The list gets pretty specific. There was a feeling that the British government was not protecting against attacks by Indians. Overall, there was just a feeling among the American political elite of the time that they could imagine something different.”

While time will tell on the repercussions of Brexit, the 18th century American split from Britain was, at the time, not the biggest loss the British could have suffered.

“Sometimes, people overemphasize the importance of these colonies to the British Empire,” Leavelle said. “The biggest economy for the Empire was in the Caribbean.”

What the Declaration has wrought has been a nearly quarter-millennia of studying, shaping and asking what it means to be an American. Leavelle said following the Declaration came still other revolutionary acts, including the writing of the Constitution.

But there were also a number of people in the new nation for whom the rousing words of the Declaration of Independence did not readily apply. Black slaves, the poor, women and some of the nation’s newly arriving immigrants didn’t fit the Founders’ concepts of “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As Abraham Lincoln quoted the Declaration at Gettysburg, 87 years after its signing, he spoke of a new birth of freedom emerging from the bloodiness of the Civil War. Succeeding generations have also reckoned ways to expand and live out the creed set down by Jefferson, a slave owner.

“It’s not lost on people that many of the most important people to sign the document owned other people,” Leavelle said. “Thomas Jefferson, when he died, wanted to be remembered for three things: authoring the Declaration of Independence, authoring the religious freedom law in Virginia and founding the University of Virginia. Well, the Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves. Religious liberty did not apply to slaves. And slaves built the University of Virginia. If you’re looking for intellectual consistency in people in the past, you’re not necessarily going to find it.”

Leavelle said the current climate of combativeness over the meanings of freedom and the interpretation of the Bill of Rights is perhaps another extension of the complexities borne out in the era of the nation’s founding.

“The Founders didn’t just say, ‘We’re going to write this beautiful document and follow it up with another beautiful document and things will be great,’” he said. “The first thing written after the first articles of the Constitution was the Bill of Rights and our biggest arguments right now are about the Bill of Rights.”

The interpretation of equality, inalienable rights, and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, like other elements of American law, has largely expanded over the decades and centuries at the diligent behest of groups initially left out of the Founders’ conceptions of those ideals.

“Once you write any of that, you can’t control its meaning or who will make a claim to it,” Leavelle said. “None of the slave owners who signed the Declaration of Independence believed that an end to slavery was going to come in the near term. But once enslaved people could read these documents and say, ‘You’re the real tyrants,’ and make the claim that this applied to them, too, something was certain to happen.”

As sacred texts go, the Declaration is party to one of the more uncanny occurrences in American history. Fifty years to the date after declaring independence, July 4, 1826, both its author, Jefferson, and its most vocal proponent, Adams, died.

After the signing, the two became bitter rivals, slugging out two ruthless presidential elections in 1796 and 1800. Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled, however, and it was reported that Adams, unaware that Jefferson had predeceased him by a matter of hours, uttered “Jefferson lives” on his deathbed.

“It’s impossible not to notice,” Leavelle said. “For me, it’s a bizarre coincidence, a really wild one. But it’s part of the mythology of the founding of the nation.”

This July 4 will mark 240 years since the Declaration and, in that time, the document still continues to speak to scholars and to the wider American people, Leavelle said. It still continues to be interpreted. And it still continues to bind Americans together.

As the 250th anniversary approaches, Leavelle said he expects there will be a renewed burst of scholarship surrounding the American Revolution.

“We’re still trying to figure out, ‘What does this mean?’” Leavelle said. “Thinking of the bicentennial in 1976, many of our great historians wrote what are considered to be their masterworks leading up to the bicentennial. There’s still intense, important scholarship taking place, still asking questions about these things, about the document. Not even the signers of the Declaration of Independence fully knew what they had. It still took many years to win a military victory over the British, to sign a treaty, to figure out how best to govern a new nation. The Declaration was not really the end or the beginning — they’ve declared independence but can they back it up? All they knew was that this was a step, and a dangerous one.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.