”We hold these truths to be self-evident.” So begins the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence, adopted by unanimous vote of Congress on July 4, 1776, and as fine a composition as ever devised in the English language.
There are many remarkable aspects of the document, not least of which is the unanimous vote. In this day and age, it is virtually impossible to conceive of American politicians being unanimous about anything, including the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. But different times yield different breeds of politicians.
And that expression “self-evident.” I remember, as a very young person about the time of Pearl Harbor, asking my father what was special about that. His answer was that these concepts were so basic and so valid that no further questions could or should be raised about them.
Hard on the heels of “self-evident” comes “all men are created equal,” which seems to stump some people but strikes me as clear as freshly scrubbed, well-made glass: We are all equal in our humanity, something that does not depend on financial, physical or mental prowess.
I confess that at times it has seemed to me that there have been people who had abandoned their humanity, but the realization has always come sooner or later that such a judgment is not upon me. Nor can anyone render such a judgment on me. This is a comforting thought.
A right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” follows, the last a suggestion from Ben Franklin as a substitute for property.
It is hard to imagine a better group of wordsmiths - Thomas Jefferson as author and Franklin and John Adams as the prime editors.
After pointing out that the Colonies are separating from their “British brethren” more in sorrow than in anger and detailing a long list of transgressions by the English Crown, the document asserts:
“For the support of this declaration … we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Brave words for men who were placing their necks on the line as they signed their names immediately after that pledge - for the stake if they lost was their lives.
Looking back on our past, it appears the triumphs always seem inevitable, but that is never the case for the people living through the challenges.
In the days following the hopeful Declaration, through the loss of New York and Philadelphia, through Valley Forge and the series of defeats in the campaigns in the South, the rebels just barely survived. Even after the British surrender at Yorktown, more fighting was needed before the British decided that they had had enough.
In the War of 1812, the diplomats who signed the treaty ending the conflict did not know of Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans. They had to wait to see if the British had been too generous in the settlement; if the British decided they had, it likely would have meant another round of warfare.
In more recent history, triumph in World War II did not seem assured to Americans who suffered through a withering string of defeats inflicted by the Japanese in the Pacific, an uncertainty shared with our Allies.
Americans watched the Germans reach the gates of Moscow, besiege Leningrad and take the lion’s share of Stalingrad. They watched Germany’s Marshal Erwin Rommel drive the British back to within spitting distance of Alexandria, Egypt and the Suez Canal. Victory certainly did not seem a sure thing to the guys who landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944.