Several years back your humble correspondent observed a diverse crowd standing in a long line on a hot summer day. The large gathering of patient people spoke with accents representing many places in the U.S. and various countries around the world. They were all happily waiting to see—not a competition or a performance or a famous work of art—but simply a room with wooden tables and chairs. As physically unremarkable as the room was, visitors reaching the end of the line were not disappointed. Many wore expressions of joy and wonder because they knew what had happened in that room in a brick building on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Independence Hall is the place where America’s founding document was created 245 years ago this week. Eleven years later, delegates meeting in the same room created the U.S. Constitution.
As for the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this weekend, in 1926 President Calvin Coolidge came to Philadelphia to celebrate its 150th anniversary and said:
It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.
If no one is to be accounted as born into a superior station, if there is to be no ruling class, and if all possess rights which can neither be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed. While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination. But remarkable as this may be, it is not the chief distinction of the Declaration of Independence. . .
It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world.
Harvard history professor David Armitage wrote in the Journal in 2014 that “the Declaration’s influence wasn’t limited to the American colonies of the late 18th century. No American document has had a greater impact on the wider world.” He added:
As the first successful declaration of independence in history, it helped to inspire countless movements for independence, self-determination and revolution after 1776 and to this very day. As the 19th-century Hungarian nationalist, Lajos Kossuth, put it, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was nothing less than “the noblest, happiest page in mankind’s history.”
Yet it took many U.S. citizens a long time to appreciate it. According to Prof. Armitage:
It is a striking historical irony that, among white Americans, the Declaration itself almost immediately sank into oblivion, what Abraham Lincoln in 1857 described as “old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won.” African-Americans, however, were quick to see the Declaration’s liberating potential. As early as the summer of 1776, Lemuel Haynes, a free black who had served in the Continental Army, turned to the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” and possess “unalienable rights” as inspiration for an abolitionist sermon.
Among whites, the Fourth of July was widely celebrated but not the Declaration itself. It re-emerged in the early 1790s as a bone of political contention in the partisan struggles between pro-British Federalists and pro-French Republicans after the French Revolution. Only after the War of 1812 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 did it become the revered cornerstone of a new American patriotism.
In February of 1861 Lincoln visited Independence Hall on his way to begin his presidency and said: