What is this document? Many see an animal skin with a series of words written on it. The words are almost completely faded now, they are, after all 236 years old. Some might say, this document was a letter of divorcement from England penned by the colonial American people. Some men may tell you, this document is a prayer to the Supreme Judge of the world. Some may say, this document was a suicide pact agreed to by 56 men. I submit to you, the declaration is all these things and so, so much more.
This document holds the hopes and dreams of the men whose hearts and minds conceived it and all who have ever existed, freedom. To understand the meaning of the declaration, one must learn of, and know the words of those who submitted it to the world so many years ago. The Declaration represents the American idea, and I would go so far as to say it is sacred. Next to the Holy Bible, the declaration is our most important document.
I am not alone in that estimation. Lets look to some famous Americans who stated what the declaration meant to them and our nation.
John Adams, why is the Declaration of Independence important today?
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be 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.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states. — Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means…” (The signer of the Declaration and second president of the United States, writing to his wife, Abigail Adams, at the time of the ratification of the Declaration)
John Quincy Adams, why is the Declaration of Independence important today?
“Why is it that next to the birthday of the Savior of the world, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day [the Fourth of July]? Is it not, that in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission on Earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government on the first precepts of Christianity?” (The son of John Adams and sixth president of the United States gave this 4th of July speech in 1837)
Noah Webster, what is the purpose of the Declaration of Independence?
[O]ur fathers were men — they were heroes and patriots — they fought — they conquered — and they bequeathed to us a rich inheritance of liberty and empire which we have no right to surrender … Yes, my fellow freemen, we have a rich and growing empire — we have a lucrative commerce to protect — we have indefeasible [inalienable] rights — we have an excellent system of religion and of government — we have wives and children and sisters to defend; and God forbid that the soil of America should sustain the wretch who [lacks] the will or the spirit to defend them. Let us then rally round the independence and Constitution of our country, resolved to a man that we will never lose by folly, disunion, or cowardice what has been planned by wisdom and purchased with blood. (Noah Webster said these words in 1798, at a fourth of July celebration. He fought in the Revolutionary War, was a legislator and judge, and became “Schoolmaster to America”, publishing the first American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828)
Abraham Lincoln, why is the Declaration of Independence important today?
“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country. I can say in return, Sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.” (From a speech in Philadelphia, February 22, 1861)
President Lincoln, what was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence?
“These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ … [T]hey established these great self-evident truths that … their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew that battle which their fathers began, so that truth and justice and mercy and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land … Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence … let me entreat you to come back … [C]ome back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence.” (President Lincoln presented this appeal in 1858 to a crowd in Lewiston, Illinois)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, what was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence?
“Fellow Americans, we venerate more widely than any other document, except only the Bible, the American Declaration of Independence. That declaration was more than a call to national action. It is a voice of conscience establishing clear, enduring values applicable to the lives of all men. It stands enshrined today as a charter of human liberty and dignity. Until these things belong to every living person, their pursuit is an unfinished business to occupy our children and generations to follow them. In this spirit we stand firmly in defense of freedom. In this spirit we cooperate with our friends, and negotiate with those who oppose us. (from the text of the report by the President to the American people on his European trip, delivered September 10,1959)
President Ronald Reagan, why is the Declaration of Independence important today?
“The signing of the document that day in Independence Hall was miracle enough. Fifty-six men, a little band so unique—we have never seen their like since — pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Sixteen gave their lives, most gave their fortunes and all of them preserved their sacred honor. What manner of men were they? Certainly they were not an unwashed, revolutionary rebel, nor were they adventurers in a heroic mood. Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists, 11 were merchants and tradesmen, nine were farmers. They were men who would achieve security but valued freedom more.
And what price did they pay? John Hart was driven from the side of his desperately ill wife. After more than a year of living almost as an animal in the forest and in caves, he returned to find his wife had died and his children had vanished. He never saw them again, his property was destroyed and he died of a broken heart — but with no regret, only pride in the part he had played that day in Independence Hall. Carter Braxton of Virginia lost all his ships — they were sold to pay his debts. He died in rags. So it was with Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Rutledge, Morris, Livingston, and Middleton. Nelson, learning that Cornwallis was using his home for a headquarters, personally begged Washington to fire on him and destroy his home — he died bankrupt. It has never been reported that any of these men ever expressed bitterness or renounced their action as not worth the price. Fifty-six rank-and-file, ordinary citizens had founded a nation that grew from sea to shining sea, five million farms, quiet villages, cities that never sleep—all done without an area re-development plan, urban renewal or a rural legal assistance program.
Now we are a nation of 211 million people with a pedigree that includes blood lines from every corner of the world. We have shed that American-melting-pot blood in every corner of the world, usually in defense of someone’s freedom. Those who remained of that remarkable band we call our Founding Fathers tied up some of the loose ends about a dozen years after the Revolution. It had been the first revolution in all man’s history that did not just exchange one set of rulers for another. This had been a philosophical revolution. (The future President at the first annual CPAC conference, January 25, 1974)
A summary word from President Ronald Reagan:
Let us ask that God’s light may illuminate the minds and hearts of our people and our leaders so that we may meet the challenges that lie before us with courage and wisdom and justice. In prayer, let us recall with confidence the promise of old that if we humble ourselves before God and pray and seek His face, He will surely hear and forgive and heal and bless our land.”
The pictures in the heading are of mine and my wife’s living room wall. The trinity of documents were a birthday present for me two years ago. These three documents hold a prestigious place in our home, because they hold a prestigious place in our heart. I use them as a reminder of the men who fought for my rights that are given to me starting in the Declaration, being upheld by the Constitution, and guaranteed to me by the Bill of Rights. There is not a day that goes by that I do not marvel a little at at least one of them in the morning before we leave for work.
I love the Declaration, I love the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and this great land! I stand with these men and will fight to preserve all, I reckon there are a great many who will stand now and lets hope forevermore. We are the remnant.
Robert E. Stage Jr.