Once in a while we hear of an Independence Day ceremony in which someone reads the text of the Declaration of Independence. I have never attended such an event, but I can imagine that the presentation could be effective. The language in the document has always enthralled me. I have read it so often and pored over various passages while I was simultaneously reading about the history of that period, that I know the declaration as well as I do the prayers we say at Mass.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

I frequently use portions of the text  — most of which was written by Thomas Jefferson — as examples for my English students. There are excellent illustrations, for example, of the use of  parallel structure: He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Unfortunately, many of my students don’t seem to know what part the Declaration of Independence played in American history, as though the title didn’t make it clear enough. I don’t mean to ridicule the students, but I have learned in their essays that many can’t distinguish between the Declaration and the Constitution. They don’t understand that the nation as we know it was not formed until a couple of decades after the Continental Congress published the Declaration.

I don’t know how well the public at large knows that history, but I do wonder at least once a year about how deeply citizens appreciate the philosophy of the Declaration, and especially its  observation that in order to secure people’s natural rights “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Jefferson was arguing, of course, that the British Parliament was not operating under that principle, that Parliament was making decisions without the consent of the governed. The underlying principle didn’t apply only to that situation, however.

The idea codified in the Declaration was, indeed, that government should act in accordance with the will of the majority of citizens, but that also presumed that more than a few citizens would participate in the process, at least by exercising the right to vote. As it is, some parts of the population had to struggle long and hard to gain full citizenship, including the franchise. The turnout at most elections in this country suggests that the ballot is not as valuable to many of us as it is to those who have been denied it.

So you’ll have a hot dog, and you’ll think about it. The text of the Declaration of Independence is available HERE.

John Trumbull's 19th century painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress

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