By Nancy Spannaus

July 4, 2023—With the unanimous vote of 12 colonies[1] on July 2, 1776, and the approval of the Declaration of Independence on the 4th, the “united States of America” was officially born. What had previously been called the “united Colonies” was now a fledgling nation.

Celebrate Our Nation's  Birth!
The reading of the Declaration in White Plains, NY on July 11, 1776

In words that were to inspire billions in subsequent generations all around the world, the Declaration sets out universal principles of government. These words should, like the Preamble of our Constitution, be seared into our memory:

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.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …

According to the National Park Service, the first official reading of the Declaration occurred on July 8, when citizens from around Philadelphia were called together to hear the historic document proclaimed and celebrated. There is credible evidence by eyewitnesses, however, that the first actual reading occurred on July 4th itself.[2]

As the historic document was reproduced and carried throughout the states, declamations and celebrations abounded.  They were held in public places where they were heard by broad layers of the population. For example, it is famously reported that the prominent black abolitionist James Forten, who was born free, heard the Declaration read in his hometown of Philadelphia. He was just one among thousands of black Americans who were inspired by the Declaration to agitate for freedom. Forten joined the American Revolutionary cause, and fought throughout his life for full citizenship for black Americans.

You will find several other articles on this blog describing the context for the Declaration, and the controversy over its meaning. The Fight Behind the Declaration describes the political mobilization conducted by the pro-independence Americans to ensure its passages. Why We Declared the Right to Happiness discusses some significant differences between our Declaration and the Lockean perspective. There are also two articles dealing with Abraham Lincoln’s view of the Declaration, one that I share: What Makes a True American, and The Declaration, Through Lincoln’s Eyes .

Celebrate Our Nation's Birth!
Lincoln’s view on the Declaration comprised the central theme of his debates with Stephen Douglas.

I also highly recommend reading the totality of Frederick Douglass’s much-touted oration on What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Douglass gave that speech on July 5, 1852 to a gathering of 500-600 people. The meeting had been organized by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Like many of Douglass’s speeches, this one cannot be encapsulated in a simplistic single statement. There is a depth of thought here which we Americans today would do well to emulate.

So, indeed, let us celebrate the Declaration!  And as we do, let us mobilize the courage to commit ourselves to fulfill its principles, to both our fellow citizens and all humanity.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.

[1] New York’s delegation abstained, but proceeded to approve the document a few days later.

[2] See this article in the Journal of the American Revolution.


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