In the movie National Treasure, Nicholas Cage plays a man obsessively searching for a treasure hidden away by a secret society in the 1700s. His quest leads him to a map supposedly printed (in invisible ink, of course) on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
Predictably, National Archives officials are disinclined to a) believe the story and, b) check the back of the fragile document. Cage’s character decides to “borrow” it; the bad guy gets the same idea; and, both descend upon the Archives one night in a race to steal the Declaration. This entertaining scene came to mind during the recent flooding that temporarily closed the Archives. Of course, our country’s historic documents were never in danger from flood damage or wise-cracking Hollywood thieves, but with the Fourth of July upon us, it’s a great time to recall the events leading to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
The American colonies in 1775 saw early stages of conflict with Great Britain. In April, the first skirmish between colonists and British forces occurred in Massachusetts—the famous “shot heard ‘round the world.” In May, the Second Continental Congress convened and appointed General George Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army. No longer tentative, the colonies were striding forward in their incredible journey toward freedom.
From May to July of 1775, the colonies formed an army, printed currency and created a post office. (Congress today could take some lessons in expediency from our predecessors.) In August, the British Parliament declared that American subjects were involved in “open and avowed rebellion.” The situation escalated further in November when Congress established a navy.
In January 1776, Thomas Paine issued “Common Sense,” advocating independence from Great Britain. Ports closed by the British in March were promptly re-opened by Congress in April; and, in May, a resolution was passed to form local governments. The final march toward war had begun, as eight of thirteen colonies decided that independence was the only course of action. They were buoyed in their decision by offers from France and Spain of military support. On June 7, the Virginia Delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution calling for independence:
"Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
Still, engaging in full-scale war proved a weighty decision and Congress postponed discussion on the resolution for three weeks. During this time, the Committee of Five, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, formed to present the colonies’ case for independence to the world. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, Adams and Franklin offered edits, and it was brought before the Continental Congress on July 1, immediately following the vote to adopt the Lee Resolution. Congress revised the statement slightly and on July 4, 1776, church bells rang across Philadelphia signaling the moment our Founding Fathers declared us a collection of “free and independent states.”
Throwing off despotism and tyranny is our history and part of our national identity—something in which we can take incredible pride. The Declaration calls us to recognize the inherent equality of all people. And when it becomes unmistakably evident that a government is denying the governed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it’s the right of people to establish a new government to secure these unalienable rights. This was and, in many places around the world today, remains, truly revolutionary.
Let the fireworks begin!