The Word That Shook the World

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.

When the members of the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia in June, 1776, it was not at all clear that they eventually would declare their independence from England. Although the “shot heard round the world” had been fired at Concord more than a year earlier in April, 1775, and a de facto state of war existed in some regions of the colonies, many in America still held out hope that they could come to some sort of agreement with England regarding taxation and representation such that secession would not be inevitable.

However, with leading thinkers such John Adams making the case to break free from England, the momentum to declare independence overcame even the most skeptical of the colonists.

On July 2, the delegations from 12 states voted to declare their independence  (the delegation from New York abstained) and on July 4, the various delegates signed the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson’s words in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration are among the most famous in the English language and the most widely-quoted in any language since they became published. (Although we should note that Jefferson’s use of the word “men” was quite literal, inasmuch as it did not include women, and it certainly did not include African slaves of either gender.)

However, the use of the adjective “all men” is what was most revolutionary about the Declaration. The signers themselves mostly were of America’s aristocracy — Jefferson himself was a plantation owner with many slaves — but they clearly were meant to include even those of the non-aristocratic class.

That one sentence in the Declaration upended the world order of that time. It set the stage for the French Revolution a few years later and eventually the demise of monarchies throughout the world. Our democracy as we know it today rests on the premise that every citizen should have an equal voice in the operation of our government.

So as we celebrate the holiday weekend with our friends and family, let’s remember that the freedoms we enjoy today all began with a few novel words written 240 years — and that we should not take for granted the legacy that the Founding Fathers bestowed upon us.

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