I suppose that for some people it might go without saying that the Declaration of Independence was important. Most people probably don’t think much about it. But aside from being one of the most critical documents in defining the idea of “America” it was also a critical step in winning the War for Independence. On this 240th Anniversary of its signing, it’s worth taking a look at why it is so important.
Kings and queens tend to not be fond of rebels. The political landscape of Europe in 1776 was much different than it is today: revolutions had not yet swept the royals from power. While some nations (Britain, for example) were constitutional monarchies, most were, frankly, dictatorships. While many European countries considered Great Britain an external threat, popular revolutions at home were an even greater internal threat, so supporting a bunch of upstart colonists on the far side of the Atlantic in an illegitimate revolt against their lawful sovereign might inspire people closer to home to take up arms themselves.
The Declaration of Independence changed all that. By laying out American grievances, it made the case that King George and Parliament had violated basic American rights and thus forfeited their own legitimacy. Friendly nations need no longer concern themselves with a band of rebels; they could now choose to embrace a young nation fighting to preserve its independence from a tyrannical power. This was altogether more palatable in the royal courts of Europe.
The Declaration of Independence also complicated things for the British. When the Howe Brothers (General and Admiral Howe, respectively commanders of Crown Land and Naval forces in the Americas) arrived in New York Harbor in 1776 they were empowered to negotiate peace with the colonies. But there were no more colonies. By formally breaking the political bond to London, the Americans had “crossed the Rubicon,” and the Howes’ peace feelers consistently snagged upon the question of independence. The Americans considered independence non-negotiable; the British considered it totally unacceptable. These irreconcilable differences could only be resolved on the field of battle. Not until 1781, at a place called Yorktown, would the Americans (and their French Allies) finally convince the British that American Independence was here to stay.
Finally, about those troops who did the convincing for Washington: they needed something to believe in. It has become a bit cliché to say that soldiers fight for each other and not for a cause. But when you read firsthand accounts of the Revolution, you find that many of the men and women involved believed passionately in the American cause. Prior to July 4th, 1776, it was still conceivable that things could return to the status quo ante bellum. After July 4th, 1776, nothing would ever be the same again. The American would defend their independence or fail striving valiantly. Liberty or Death.
In the midst of barbecue, baseball, and fireworks, I encourage you to think for a moment about the men of the 1st Continental Regiment, who on July 4th, 1776 were posted at Gravesend on Long Island, monitoring the British invasion fleet anchored in New York Harbor. When, a few days later, they were read the Declaration of Independence for the first time, they were within cannon range of the most powerful military in the world, and they knew they would pay with their blood, sweat, and tears to enforce that Declaration. But they, with the help of hundreds of thousands of their comrades, did ultimately succeed in enforcing it. Let’s give thanks for their courage and dedication.
To learn more about the effect of the Declaration of Independence, and the darker days of 1776, I suggest reading Times That Try Men’s Souls.