Why Do We Celebrate the Declaration of Independence?
By David Carnes, Staff Writer
The Declaration of Independence is a foundational document of the United States that can be thought of as its mission statement. It does not contain specific legal principles as the Constitution does; rather, it is a philosophical and political document that performed two functions – it explained the reasons justifying the colonies’ separation from England and, more importantly, it set out the basic philosophical principles underlying the American government that was soon to be born.
Independence Day has been celebrated since 1777, when gunshots were fired in salute and formal dinners were held. In 1781 the Massachusetts General Court became the first state legislature to recognize July 4 as a state celebration. In 1870, the U.S. Congress made Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees
The Declaration of Independence lists five principles upon which the United States government is based:
- All men are created equal.
- All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
- These rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
- The purpose of government is to secure these rights.
- Government derives its legitimate authority from the consent of the governed.
Perhaps the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights is the the right to a jury trial in certain civil cases.
Right to trial by jury
Of course, at the time it was drafted the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence existed more as ideals than as concrete realities – early American democracy was functionally limited to white male property owners. Gradually, however, Constitutional amendments began revising the American Constitutional framework and eventually, day-to-day life. The Bill of Rights was passed a few years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, for example.
Perhaps the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights is the the right to a jury trial in certain civil cases, including limits on courts from overturning a jury's findings of fact. This key provision allows a person who is injured by the negligence of another to file a personal injury lawsuit to recover money damages for their injuries.
As the civil war ended, the 13th Amendment freed the slaves; a few years later the 14th Amendment outlawed racial discrimination (although this amendment was widely ignored in much of the country until at least the 1960s). In 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.
Revered as much as the Ten Commandments
Today, the U.S. Constitution is the world’s oldest, even though the United States is a relatively new country, and constitutionalism has nearly attained the status of an American civil religion. The Bill of Rights, consisting of the first ten constitutional amendments (all of which were inspired by the Declaration of Independence) are revered almost as much as the Ten Commandments of the Bible and are seen as just as unchangeable. In America, patriotism does not mean loyalty to the Queen as in the United Kingdom; it does not mean loyalty to the Emperor as in Japan; it does not mean loyalty to the Communist Party as in China; and it does not mean loyalty to Islam as it does in some Islamic countries. In America, patriotism means loyalty to a set of abstract ideals that were first codified in the Declaration of Independence.
Even today, disputes rage over the specific application of these principles. Does fundamental equality mean that gay marriage should be institutionalized, for example? Does the right to life mean that you have the right to carry a handgun to protect yourself, or does it mean that you have the right to prevent your neighbor from carrying a handgun so that he won’t use it to kill you? Does the right to life apply to an unborn fetus, or does the right to liberty endow a pregnant woman with the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy? These and other disputes could continue raging far into the future (will clones have rights, for example?), sometimes in ways that the founding fathers could never have imagined.