July 4, 1776 – The Declaration of Independence is Adopted by the American Colonies

The Fourth of July commemoriates the 1776 adoption by the American colonies of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.


Although many students learn that this is the great document that proclaimed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, the reality is more complicated.

Thomas Jefferson, who penned the document, meant this right to apply to white property-holding men. It was a document understood by all at the time to exclude women, children, slaves, blacks, and other “inferior” groups.

As Stephen Douglas, when debating Abraham Lincoln, argued in 1858:

“When Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen colonies were slaveholding colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slaveholding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the Revolutionary War. Now, do you believe—are you willing to have it said—that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to continue to hold him as a slave in violation of what he believed to be the divine law?”

(Stephen Douglas, speaking at Galesburg, IL, October 7, 1858)

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, contended that the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence. …” In other words, the purpose of law is to establish normative standards, and act as a bridge, from that which is, to that which ought to be. This philosophy was reified in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln’s brilliant co-optation of the words used by the Founders – his insistence that this country live up to the words that comprise the compact agreed to in 1787, was a stroke of lawyerly genius that could not be gainsaid by the South. Henry L. Gates, Jr., writing in Lincoln on Race and Slavery, opined that this re-interpretation was “the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did.”

Today, most Americans believe in the elevated meaning that Lincoln gave to the Declaration. As Lincoln said in Peoria in 1854, if we re-adopt the Declaration along with practices and policies that harmonize with the plain meaning of the words set forth in the document,. … “If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.


Now on the Fourth of July, the document we celebrate is the one written by Jefferson, but translated by Lincoln, and thus is truly a document that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings in the United States. We still struggle with putting its fine intentions into practice, but the blueprint it outlines is one of which the country can be proud.

About rhapsodyinbooks

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4 Responses to July 4, 1776 – The Declaration of Independence is Adopted by the American Colonies

  1. Margot says:

    I knew I would come to your website and find a meaningful post about Independence Day. Thank you for the reminder about how far we have come. I love your phrase ” . . . the one written by Jefferson, but translated by Lincoln . . .”. We owe so much to Lincoln. I hope you have a happy celebratory day today.

  2. Wisteria says:

    You beat me to the punch. I love your post. I will probably build on it. Or….as I am tired, you did such a GREAT job, I will just take it easy.
    By the way, I don’t have your email for follow up. Would you do me a favor and check the movie again? I thought I had it set for universal review…apparently my decrepit mind has lost it. LOL Wisteria

  3. Alyce says:

    Nice article about the declaration, Jefferson and Lincoln!

  4. frank says:

    i have an original copy of the decleration 1776 ?who can i contact to know what is worth?

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