Fred LaSor: A birth of a nation
America is celebrating this year the 241st anniversary of the date from which we measure our birth as a nation: July 4, 1776. It was on that day — more than a year after war had begun between the colonies and Great Britain — the Second Continental Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence, a document listing numerous grievances against the British Crown, and concluding henceforth the 13 states would, and by rights should be, a single nation of 13 colonies independent of British rule and based on a conception of individual liberty.
Thomas Jefferson, principal drafter of that document and an influential spokesman for independence, had declared only eight months earlier — in November 1775 — he was a great supporter of union with Great Britain, but the unrepresentative nature of British Parliamentary rule moved him to push for independence. So with a zeal that belied his previous support for union with King George, Jefferson set pen to paper and crafted a “statement of sentiments” of the colonists who had tired of autocratic rule without representation.
Writing to Henry Lee the year before his death in 1826, Jefferson said of his draft it was “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
The idea of an American mind that avoided titles of nobility and the trappings of royalty was popular on this side of the Atlantic. Reading European texts of the time and place makes it clear the colonists were frequently seen as poorly educated and ill-mannered. How could it be otherwise if the citizens of the new nation believed an individual’s skills and accomplishments were his measure, not his breeding?
The five person drafting committee charged by the Second Continental Congress with putting the initial version together consisted of Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingstone of New York (a lawyer and politician) and Robert Sherman of Connecticut, (lawyer, statesman, and the only signer of the Declaration who also signed the Continental Association, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution).
John Adams would go onto be elected our second president, succeeding George Washington. His vice-president was Thomas Jefferson, who later succeeded him as our third president. Initially close, Adams and Jefferson had a falling out in the 1790s that lasted many years and was only patched up in 1812, following which they maintained a warm and fascinating correspondence.
Adams died on July 4, 1826. Believing Jefferson had outlived him, his last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.” In fact, Jefferson had died only hours earlier, also on July 4.
It was the 50th anniversary of the declaration they had worked on together, giving voice to a new concept of government. Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, was president. It would be hard to find two men who had contributed more in the way of intellectual structure to the nation that we would become than John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Among the most well-known statements in the English language, the words that capture the essence of that declaration are: “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.” Most nations up to that time traced their origins to a royal dynasty, or to a warring conqueror. The United States was born with a guiding principle equality, liberty and individual rights would be ever our lodestar. We have lived up to those tenets imperfectly, but with great striving.
Fred LaSor lived much of his adult life outside the United States, which only made him appreciate it all the more.