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While the Declaration of Independence established our nation in 1776, it did not immaculately conceive the country we know today. The formation of our founding documents were the product of fervent debate, petty squabbles and grand compromises.John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence" depicts the Committee of Five, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, presenting a draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, on June 28, 1776. Of the 56 signers of the declaration, 42 are depicted in the painting along with five others involved in the process, but who did not sign, including Livingston, who was recalled by New York before he could sign. The painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.


The 56 men who gathered in Philadelphia in July 1776 knew the new nation they declared would be a constant experiment in representative democracy, a nation that would trip and stumble, but not fall as it moved toward a more perfect union

Drafting of the United States Constitution did not immediately follow the signature of the declaration. The American Revolution lasted nearly eight years from the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 to the surrender of British general Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown in April 1783. During the course of the war, delegates from the 13 original states drafted a new nation under the Articles of Confederation, a loose alliance that protected their sovereignty — in much the same way the modern-day European Union is a league of free states with their own history and cultural attitudes that agree on trade and a common currency, but little else.

The newly liberated American states languished bankrupt as a confederation for nearly a decade, as petty states squabbled over taxes, borders and coped with an economic depression. An armed uprising in Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays in 1786 and 1787 led to a more urgent appeal by the states to replace the obviously failing system.

The Constitution was drafted in 1787 and the new federal government began under it on March 4, 1789. However, it was not in effect in North Carolina until that November and in Rhode Island until May 1790 while waiting for their respective legislatures to ratify it.

Christopher Fox GrahamStill, the values which most Americans hold most dear — freedom of speech, religion, the press, trial by jury and prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable search and seizure and quartering troops in private homes  — were not included. To appease anti-federalists who had fought against adoption of the Constitution, 12 measures were proposed as amendments, the 10 which passed are collectively known as the Bill of Rights, and were not ratified until December 1791.

The belief “all men are created equal” in the declaration’s opening sentence was noble in sentiment, but limited in practice. Women were not considered equal to men, and nearly 700,000 blacks were enslaved throughout all 13 states, a situation that would take more than 80 years and four years of brutal civil war to end. Voting was initially limited to white property owners, but later expanded between 1812 and 1860 to all white men over age 21, then non-white men in 1870, women in 1920, American Indians in 1924 and 18- to 20-year-olds in 1971.

The Founding Fathers knew these founding documents were not beyond reproach and later editing, which is why they drafted them in such a way that changes would be difficult, time-consuming, exhausting and contentious, so as to make edits worth all the monumental effort. Americans have sought fit to amended the document 27 times, most recently in 1992.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were under no illusion that the new nation they had declared in 1776 was a perfect union. Their wisdom was instead creating a country that would change as the people did. That trust in us, their descendents, to take their fragile, hard-won nation and continue to improve it is why we celebrate the Fourth of July.

 


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  • Gene McCarthy

    Am I reading between the lines that you believe the Constitution is a living, breathing document? I hope not! This nation is under assault by people who believe it is a democracy. I moved to Arizona from a state that has ignored the principles of the Constitution as Republic. We must remain vigilent to protect the concept as designed by our founders.

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