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The founders were libertarians
The founders were libertarians

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It is the year 1776, and the most famous day in all American history has dawned. A summer thunderstorm two days earlier had broken the rising Philadelphia heat, and by many accounts the day was cool and comfortable. The men of the Continental Congress had gathered, all of them intent on the task at hand.

That task had begun nearly a month earlier on June 7th, when Virginian Richard Henry Lee took the floor and moved that “… these United Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states…” John Adams promptly seconded the motion, and the great debate began. Yankee delegates fought ardently for independence. Some representing the middle colonies wished for it, but could not speak for it without the consent of their constituents. Others fought it with all determination, sure the tiny Continental Army was doomed to fail. Arguments and counterarguments raged until after dark, and by June 10th it was decided the vote should be delayed. In the interest of being well-prepared, a Committee of Five was appointed to draft a written resolution of independence. Among the five selected were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The Virginian, already known for his gift with the quill, they elected to do the writing.

For three weeks Jefferson worked, in his rented downtown flat. Far from home, he had none of his impressive library with him, and apparently no need of it. One of the best-educated and well-read men in the nation, Jefferson had the philosophies of freedom committed to heart. The ideas were not original. He drew on his own previous work for the Virginia Constitution, and that of contemporaries George Mason, James Wilson, and Thomas Paine. They, in turn, had drawn from the great thinkers of the Renaissance, John Locke and Frances Hutcheson. Who had themselves taken inspiration from ancient Romans like Cicero. No, the principles of liberty were nothing new. The brilliance of Jefferson’s work was its masterful eloquence, grace, and passion. All who read it were moved; now all the patriots needed was the vote of Congress for independence.

The crucial turning point in America’s destiny came on July 2nd. A late arrival finally appeared, with his vote for independence, and the few remaining opponents chose to abstain from the meeting for the sake of Congressional unanimity. The vote, at long last, made the clean break from Great Britain. John Adams predicted, with some slight miscalculation, that July 2nd would forever more be celebrated in America with feasts and fireworks.

The ‘most famous day in all American history’ was far less dramatic. With the actual vote out of the way, Congressional approval of the written resolution was merely an afterthought. Jefferson, as all writers must, had suffered through editing and alteration of his text for the past day, and on July 4th Congress was finally satisfied. The accepting vote was quick and unanimous. No one signed it except for John Hancock and the Secretary Charles Thompson; it would be another month before the delegates added their signatures. Congress adjourned, and Jefferson went shopping for a thermometer and some gloves. But the deed had been done. Almost as important as the actual decision itself, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence has stood through the centuries as an emblem of freedom in Americans’ hearts. His stirring words are taught to us in the earliest years of school, their meaning still as precious as the day he first wrote them.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.