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It was proposed to establish a nation on new principles

4 July 2013

For visitors from outside the United States, today is Independence Day, celebrating the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, signed on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia.

From President Calvin Coolidge’s “Address at the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence” in Philadelphia, July 5, 1926:

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.

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9 Comments to “It was proposed to establish a nation on new principles”

  1. Actually, President Coolidge got it wrong. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to Henry Lee in 1825: “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. 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.”

    I’d trust Thomas Jefferson to understand the rationale and purpose of the Declaration of Independence more than I would Calvin Coolidge. He, after all, wrote most of it.

    • Interesting quote, Walt.

    • Given Coolidge’s mistake, wouldn’t that mean that Jefferson got it right? And I don’t think Coolidge is wrong. He does say they’d never been assembled before and declared in such a way.

    • Yes, and not only was Coolidge wrong, almost everything we think we know about The Declaration is wrong. For example, it was not THE Declaration; each state passed its own declaration of independence. And, in the 18th Century, the important part of such a document was the end (in this case where independence from England and the Crown was declared). The opening paragraphs, including statements about equality and the nature of man, were not taken seriously or considered important at the time, they were just a nice sounding preamble to real content.

      For the true and fascinating story, check out Pauline Maier,s great book _American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence_.

  2. This:

    “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”

    It had not been seen before on this Earth. And millions reap the blessings of this every day.

    A heartfelt standing ovation to our Founding Fathers!

    • “A heartfelt standing ovation to our Founding Fathers!”

      I’m standing with you!

      And one of the most amazing is George Washington. As our first president, the way in which he implemented the written documents establishing our government set many critical precedents. I read a lengthy and detailed biography of him a few years ago, and was incredibly impressed by his integrity. He simply didn’t bow to political expedience or personal pressure. No wonder the cherry tree legend got started. It recounts a trivial and fictional incident, but conveys the profound honesty of the man.

  3. The United States of America, my friendly giant of a neighbour, is a great and gracious country. I’ve always admired and respected the foundation on which it stands.

    Celebrate your July 4th with pride, colour, and fireworks. You have every “inalienable” right to! :-)

    Happy 4th! Americans rock!

  4. And three cheers for no America-bashing in this comment thread.

    “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

    One of the absolute best Fourth of July weekends for me was the one where I was in Philadelphia on July 3rd, and got to touch the Liberty Bell. This was before that nutjob with a hammer spoiled it for the rest of us.

    I was in Richmond for the Fourth.

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