The Declaration of Independence which we will hear, reflect and celebrate on July 4 in Port Royal has been reinterpreted in successive generations. It was first and foremost a document to indicate failure – the petition process of earlier years by the colonists had failed. The King dismissed the colonists well-reasoned arguments attributing them to a few troublemakers. He was convinced in 1775 that the the purpose of the “American rebellion” was for independence right from the beginning. He raised forces, hired foreign troops and had burned American cities (Norfolk) in early 1776 to try to force them back by making them submit.
Garry Wills emphasizes in his book Inventing America that the purpose of the Declaration was not to make the colonies self-governing – they were already acting that way. Congress’ action in 1776 was to acknowledge what had happened, particularly in the debating of independence in key towns of America and the creation of state and local declarations of independence. Many of these particularly in Virginia were stepping stones toward what became state constitutions.
The events of early 1776 led people to see that England had already separated from them. The real motive of Congress and the declaration was a necessary step to secure foreign aid. In that they had to provide a unified stand, difficult with 13 separate colonies. They had to make their cause seem justifiable. In the end they needed that. They wanted to move away from the concept of “rebellion”. England would be dealing with a country not a group of rebellious colonies.
Much of the meaning we celebrate in the Declaration is close to Lincoln’s concept of the document – that the statements on equality and rights set a standard of the future – that it was a statement of ideals and goals to be established for the future. The values he emphasized were part of the Revolution generation – equality, human rights, government by consent. He needed to restate those values in a new way to broaden its appeal and to apply it to his time in the midst of the Civil War.
This was best stated in the Gettysburg Address. The Union triumph became the result of the idea that “all men are created equal” and what he called for was the Union complete the “unfinished work” and bring to “this nation, under God, a new birth of freedom.”