We nearly lost our independence in 1877. For 35 years the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. displayed the official signed copy of the Declaration of Independence for all to see — beginning with those bold words: “'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States” and ending with John Hancock’s equally bold signature followed by fifty-five others.
As a special present to the nation, the declaration returned to its birthplace, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, for ongoing celebrations of its 100th birthday in 1876. It then moved to the State Department Library in early 1877. Within months, the Patent Office burned. Had the declaration been returned to its usual spot, the nation’s first treasure would have been lost forever — a close call and warning to preserve it as tightly as a mother protects an infant.
By modern standards, they were really reckless with the declaration in its early days. At first it was frequently unrolled and then rolled up again, weakening the paper. At the Patent Office, a nearby window exposed its already rapidly deteriorating ink to sunlight. Today the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and all four pages of the U.S. Constitution are carefully displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
They reside in $4 million aluminum and titanium fireproof containers. The fragile parchments do not touch the glass, and their airtight cases are filled with a non-leaky preserving gas. The treasures enjoy a steady climate controlled temperature of 67 degrees.
We have taken great pains to preserve our charters of freedom, which makes it hard to understand why a small publishing company would slap warning labels on the declaration and U.S Constitution.
Last month Fox News Channel reported that Wilder Publication’s reprints equated our founding documents with old novels by warning: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if written today.” What were they thinking? They weren’t.
If any label belongs on the declaration, it’s this one: “The Declaration of Independence: A Must Read.”
The principles behind independence haven’t changed. Because the U.S. Constitution has been amended over the years, the declaration’s most controversial line “all men are created equal” can easily be interpreted to include men and women of multiple races, ethnicities and creeds.
Our founder’s belief that rights came from a Creator — and could not be doled out like candy from a king — hasn’t changed. The principle of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness still screams the “American dream” as much as it did in 1776.
Failure to read and appreciate the Declaration of Independence today is a failure to understand who we are as Americans. We need to remember that the declaration outlines more than 25 acts of tyranny. The king was the culprit.
He “kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.” He was guilty of “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing taxes on us without our consent.” He took “our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments.” Declaration drafter Thomas Jefferson daringly called the king a tyrant and “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
The best way to preserve independence — not simply the document but what it means — is to pass its principles to the next generation. We must read the declaration for ourselves and to our children.
And because this national treasure wasn’t burned in a fire in 1877, it’s available for all to see in person by visiting the National Archives in our nation's capital or, more conveniently, through the Internet at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.
There all can read this "must read" this Independence Day.
Jane Hampton Cook, is co-author of “Stories of Faith and Courage from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan” and author of “Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War.” For more visit janecook.com.
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