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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Why We Have Fireworks

"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, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..."

On June 11, 1776, the founding fathers in Philadelphia formed a committee to explain to the world why they thought breaking away from England was worth a terrible war. Thomas Jefferson was on the committee and wrote the first draft over the next two weeks, but 86 changes were made by his colleagues. Their explanation was finally approved by the Continental Congress on July 4,1776. The next day printed copies of their so-called "Declaration of Independence" were distributed.

You can see the original handwritten manuscript and that first printing here, at the National Archives Web site.

On July 8 the Declaration appeared in the Philadelphia newspaper, but in 1776 everyone didn't get to see a newspaper, and many people were unable to read. So public meetings were called in Philadelphia and every other major American city to read the Declaration out loud. When it was read in Philadelphia's Independence Square, the citizens rang bells and struck up music. A year later, on July 4, 1777, they marked its anniversary with bonfires, bells and fireworks. Americans have been setting off fireworks and celebrating on July 4th ever since.

The original manuscript has been the most cherished icon of American culture for more than two centuries. But this week we don't celebrate just an ancient yellow piece of paper signed by a bunch of old men with funny hair. It's the ideal that they expressed in that paper that we celebrate.

No matter how well it's cared for, the paper itself is transient. Someday it will compost like all other organic matter. But its central idea -- that governments only get their power from the people, who are all equal in the eyes of the law and have the right to change things -- is a principle that will long outlive any particular piece of paper. We could burn the document, but the vision would live on. The principles of the Declaration are immortal.

But its vision has never been thoroughly realized. At first, only white males who owned significant property could vote to change the government. It took almost a century of pushing and challenging before working-class men, immigrants, or men of color gained that right, and nearly a century and half before women of any class or color gained it. The ideal of equality under the law proved even harder to realize than the right to vote for change, as flawed mortals wrote and applied laws that were often based on fear, greed, or self-interest rather than justice.

It was natural that those excluded from its benefits would consider the Declaration of Independence a hypocritical lie, as Mohican Indian John Quinney did in his 1854 July 4th address. Although his ancestors had fought for the U.S. in the Revolution alongside their white neighbors, his nation had been rewarded with systematic annihilation and abuse. The protection of individual rights and equality under the law had not been his people's experience.

Despite the difficulty of applying its principles in the real world, the Declaration has remained a touchstone against which we measure the legitimacy of government policies and actions. In the last letter its author ever wrote, he expressed his hopes for its future:

"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains... and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion ... let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

And then, on July 4th, 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration -- Thomas Jefferson passed away.

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 1, 2006

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