The Declaration of Independence was adopted two days after the Second Continental Congress approved the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain. The document was intended to be a formal statement detailing the reasons for the separation but it did much more than that, laying the foundation for the government that would follow.
The preamble to the Declaration contains some of the most significant and memorable words in the English language: 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.
This one sentence changed the world. It conveyed the promise of America, a commitment to a society with a people representational of all aspects of humanity liberated to find the fullest expression of their hopes and dreams. It established America as an ideal to cherish and a dream to pursue.
The Declaration of Independence also foreshadowed the preamble to the Constitution of the United States with its proud declaration of power and claim of responsibility – “We the people of the United States.” We are the architects of our government, it says. We will determine the nature of our society. We – the people – are in control. The world had never seen anything like it before.
The seeds planted in Philadelphia in l776 have spread across globe. Some have fallen on fertile ground, where they were nurtured and warmly embraced. Others have blossomed in barren and forbidding places, forcing their way up through concrete resistance and cracking walls of oppression – bringing down the Berlin wall, liberating Poland, and, most vividly and dramatically in our time, ending apartheid in South Africa.
You can hear the echo of the Declaration of Independence in Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural address. “We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?” he said, quoting Marianne Williamson. “Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God…We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.”
You can see it in the precedent Mandela set by following in Washington’s footsteps, walking away when he could easily have been President for life, choosing principle over power. You see it again in his generosity of spirit, the way he replaced separation with inclusion, racial hate with color blind kindness, antagonism and division with understanding and reconciliation. Proof yet again that big things from small seeds grow.
The day after formal vote for separation and the day before the Declaration of Independence was adopted, John Adams wrote his wife. He said, “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty and solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
It has and it should – forever more. Happy Independence Day!