Here’s a trivia question for you. The Statue of Liberty holds a torch in one hand. What is she holding in the other? It looks like a book, in tablet form.
The answer is the Declaration of Independence, since the tablet is engraved with July 4, 1776, in Roman numerals.
The great British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”
Two hundred thirty seven years ago, 56 men, representing some 3 million British colonists, voted to approve that revolutionary document. If they failed, these men were voting for their own death.
In June 1776, the Continental Congress voted to approve declaring independence from Great Britain, and a committee was formed to write the document. Thomas Jefferson served on that committee and became the chief author. The bulk of what he wrote was accepted without alteration.
On July 2, 1776, Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. That’s why John Adams said about that date: “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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” He was off by two days.
On July 4, Congress voted to accept the now-modified Declaration of Independence.
What makes the Declaration so revolutionary? Above all, it says that our rights come from God. John F. Kennedy expressed it so well in his Inaugural Address in 1961: “[T]he same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
God-given rights are non-negotiable. God-given rights supersede rights granted by man.
As Chesterton put it, “The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.”
In that sense, America is and always will be one nation under God. Unless we were somehow to be cut off from the Declaration, in which case, we would no longer be America.
The essence of Americanism is God-given rights to “We the People.” For all our flaws, for all the ugly chapters in our history, for all the mistreatment of the Indians and of blacks as slaves and then as second-class citizens, God-given rights are the foundation for our past, present and future. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the problem with America is not our creed (as seen in the Declaration) but in our failure to live up to that creed.
I’m reminded of that musical prayer in the hymn “America the Beautiful”: “America! America! God, mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!”
In August, a month after the vote on July 4, 1776, to adopt the Declaration of Independence, the 56 men of the Continental Congress began the process of signing the revolutionary document. Delegates had to make their way back to Philadelphia – during war time – in order to sign the Declaration. The final signature was not affixed until January 1777.
For the first several months, the only printed copies of the Declaration of Independence contained just two names – one of which was that of John Hancock, the president of that assembly. When he signed the document (in August), he deliberately put his “John Hancock” on the form in a way that was so large that King George III could read it without his spectacles.
The other name on the first few printed copies of the Declaration was that of Charles Thomson, the secretary of that Continental Congress. Later he would get involved in Bible translation.
When Ben Franklin signed it, he declared, “We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” They were signing their death warrants, defying the strongest nation on earth.
We forget sometimes just how impossible the situation must have looked. A betting man at that time could easily have felt that the odds were that the British would be able to squash the rebellion in their American colonies – in little time.
No wonder, during and after the war, George Washington said repeatedly how grateful he was to God for our incredible victory. For instance, in 1778, when Benedict Arnold’s treason was discovered before it could damage the American cause, Washington said, “The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
In his first Inaugural Address, our first president said, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. …”
So, as we approach the 237th birthday of America, we should give thanks to the Lord for our God-given rights. May we not squander such freedom, nor let it sift through our fingers.