Times Change, But The Ideas In Declaration Of Independence Endure

July 4th is a generally more festive American holiday — with cookouts, parades, parties, and fireworks — than other patriotic holidays, such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day.

Most people forget that when the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed on or about July 4th 1776 it was both a revolutionary and a somber occasion.  It was revolutionary in being the first political doctrine in human history to assert that the rights of the people come from God, and not the state — which made those rights natural, absolute, and “unalienable.”

But it was a somber occasion because in 1776 the odds of success in separating from England were dismal.  There was simply no way the irregular and poorly trained colonial army could prevail against the far greater number of disciplined forces of British army and navy.  Great Britain was the most powerful nation on Earth, while the 13 American colonies were disunited and relatively poor.

While George Washington was an impressive leader, things looked grim for the Continental Army in the months following the Declaration of Independence.  In the first major engagement Washington’s army was defeated and forced to retreat by British General William Howe, who captured the prize of New York in September 1776.

The following month in October 1776, the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of White Plains.  After that rout, the only point on Manhattan Island still held by the Americans was Fort Washington. But that didn’t last.

In the early morning of November 15, 1776, the British were joined by German Hessian soldiers, and the Americans were completely overwhelmed — barricaded inside of Fort Washington — with the British and Hessians firing unceasingly on them.  By the time the Americans surrendered, they had lost 2,900 soldiers, nearly six times the casualties of British and Germans.

General Washington was desperate to turn things around, and he finally led victorious campaigns in the Battle of Trenton and Princeton in December 1776 and January 1977.  But these were followed by reversals and defeat, such as at the Battle of Brandywine. And just weeks later, General Washington was once again outmaneuvered and humiliated by British General Howe, who succeeded in the ultimate symbolic victory of marching his British troops into Philadelphia in September of 1777, literally occupying what was then America’s first capital — the city of the signing of the Declaration and the seat of the Continental Congress.

And while the British were settling in, expropriating and inhabiting the homes of wealthy Philadelphians, thirty miles away George Washington was regrouping with his sick, weary, and underfed troops in drafty tents during the cold winter of 1778 at Valley Forge.  But as fate would have it, the hardship experienced at Valley Forge was a turning point of the War for Independence, for it was here that Washington, in desperation, sought God’s intervention.

The Diary of Nathaniel Snowden recounts the testimony of an eyewitness observer, who by chance encountered George Washington alone on his knees praying loudly in the snowy woods of Valley Forge.  Snowden’s account of Washington’s prayer at that dark hour of the revolutionary struggle depicts him as beseeching “God’s deliverance of aid for the cause of the country, humanity and the world.”  Indeed, Washington placed everything on the line for the cause as did the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, citing in the last sentence of that document that “with firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Without Washington’s leadership, unrelenting perseverance, and reliance on the Almighty, the Declaration would probably have come to naught, with subsequent and final battles in the war for independence almost certainly failing.

The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate on July 4th, is not just what gave political birth to the United States, with its unique emphasis on limited government and the freedom for its citizens. It was the ensuing Constitution — drafted after the colonial army secured a final victory over the British at Yorktown — that provided a legal structure to implement the ideas in the Declaration in the form of a rule of law emphasizing accountability to the people.  And that is what enabled the nation to prosper like no other in human history, becoming a “shining city on a hill” — the consequence of which was an amazing ascendance from colonial poverty to global superpower in less than 200 years.

America now faces the greatest scandal of abuse of power in its history. And while times have changed in that regard, principles have not.  May this July 4th be a special time, hopefully a turning point, for Americans to demand the prosecution of corruption in government and also to renew their appreciation of accountable and limited government.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.