John Adams predicted that the “second day of July, 1776 …will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…. solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”
Adams made that prediction because it’s the date when the delegates of the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution for independence introduced by Virginia firebrand Richard Henry Lee, even though the document was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th.
While Adams’ prediction turned out to be two days off the mark, there is no more appropriate day than July 2, 2015 to launch The Declaration Project, a comprehensive collection of Declarations from around the world and across the ages — and to give ‘the people’ the opportunity to write and share their own Declaration, and as a result to inspire constructive change.
This interactive initiative features:
o The Declaration Collection, an ever-growing collection of declarations of independence and kindred declarations crafted in the U.S. and the world over from across the ages. Many who’ve crafted the declarations published here claim to be advancing the principles of our own Founding Fathers and Mothers, even as they often disagree about what those principles amount to, and how they are best applied.
o MyDeclaration, which invites people the world over to compose and post personal declarations. This is everyone’s chance to share their political ideals, based on their own aspirations for society and their notions of independence, liberty, equality; of citizenship, civic action and engagement; of government of, by and for the people.
o The Spirit of ’76 Cafe, which features thoughtful Socratic explorations of themes that resonate in many of the declarations on our site. Our inaugural discussion will begin online today, July 2. As with all our Democracy Café-sponsored dialogue initiatives, one goal is to provide forums for diverse participants to share their convictions and discover uncommon common ground.
Our hope is that The Declaration Project will be a platform for people of diverse political stripes to tap into their revolutionary heritage in ways that will galvanize them to take concerted action in the civic sphere.
How did The Declaration Project come to be?
Since 2007, I’ve been gallivanting across the fruited plain holding offbeat mini-constitutional conventions – called Constitution Café. (I’ve chronicled in a book some of my adventures ‘constitutionalizing’ with motley groups far and wide).
A principal aim of this initiative is to inspire my fellow Americans to actually read our existing Constitution (most haven’t read it), and as a result come to a keener appreciation of the amazing feat of our Framers, even if and as some participants propose changes or additions to our supreme law of the land.
But something unexpected has happened along the way – more and more participants have expressed the sentiment that what we really need is a new declaration of independence.
After all, as one precocious 12-year-old participant pointed out, at a dialogue I held at the National Constitution Center, after the last federal government shutdown debacle, one of the few things most Americans in our polarized society can agree on is that our democracy is on life support. And so what we need to do first and foremost, the Constitution Café-goer asserted, is to part company with a system that has become so corrupted that even our Founders would find it unrecognizable.
Could it be that a bold new declaration will serve as a vital clarion call to revive the Spirit of ’76?
The sentiment that our democratic republic is in the dregs is reflected in surveys.
A 2014 Rasmussen poll reveals that the vast majority of Americans – upwards of an eye-popping 81 percent – believe they are not being governed with their consent.
One pollster interprets this to mean that most Americans across the political spectrum harbor a “pre-revolutionary” sentiment – meaning, they’re mad as hell that our democracy is dysfunctional, but don’t know what to do about it.
While this sentiment is echoed in a separate poll, furthering the tone that Americans are livid that their Congress, the same survey shows, rather than passing the buck entirely to our elected officials, Americans also blame themselves for failing at their civic duty to rectify this alarming state of affairs.
If a Gallup survey of American sentiment conducted two years ago still holds true, then nearly three-fourths of us believe our Founders would be ashamed of what our constitutional republic has become.
But could there be a not-to-be-missed opportunity, a silver lining of sorts, in this bleak outlook? Could those calling for a new declaration be on the right track for rescuing our democracy?
After all, Declaration-crafting is in our DNA. In the years since our July 4, 1776 declaration changed the course of human events, Americans have made it a practice of issuing new ones, many of them modeled after our famous rabble-rousing document, whenever they’ve found our democracy out of kilter and sought to bring it more in line with the vision of our Founders (or at least, what they claim or perceive that vision to be, though in instances some clearly misappropriate the Declaration for antithetical ends).
For example, in 1848, at a convention for women’s rights held in New York, activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott circulated the Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention, demanding the acknowledgment of women as rights-bearing individuals. It’s second paragraph starts out: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Their declaration, signed by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men, proved pivotal in gaining women’s suffrage.
And on July 4, 1970, the Black Declaration of Independence signed and distributed by the National Committee of Black Churchmen had this powerful opening: “When in the course of Human Events, it becomes necessary for a people who were stolen from the lands of their Fathers…and discriminated against for 351 years, to call with finality, a halt to such indignities and genocidal practices…” This declaration was the catalyst for a new series of defining civil rights actions.
The historian Philip Foner asserts that our Declaration of Independence has always been “a model whenever changes in American society were deemed necessary.”
But not just for Americans. It has been the catalyst for struggles across the globe to break the chains of oppression. Take the declaration of independence issued on July 16, 1847 in Liberia – a nation of former American slaves. Composed by the Virginia-born African American Hilary Teague, it enshrined the recognition of “certain inalienable rights among these are life, liberty, and the right to acquire, possess, enjoy, and defend property.”
The progressive historian Staughton Lynd maintains that “the Declaration of Independence is the single most concentrated expression of the revolutionary intellectual tradition,” and that pro-democracy activists ever since “have taken [it] as their point of departure and claimed to be the true heirs of the spirit of ’76.”
For a good while now, I have been compiling declarations – including some of the scores of declarations issued in the New World before the ‘original’ July 4, 1776 document was composed. Indeed, ‘declaration collecting’ has become an obsession.
It eventually occurred to me that I should sort and categorize them, and share them online – as well as to tell in brief the story behind the creation of each of them.
Then it further occurred to me that people today might care to craft and share declarations of their own – and that this should be a complementary part of this nascent declaration project.
Something else dawned on me: Maybe one reason so many are paralyzed to take concrete action, even as they’re deeply concerned about the state and straits of our constitutional republic, is because they haven’t yet taken the time to discover their true political voice.
Yet this might be the essential first step for awakening within people the Spirit of ’76, and then plotting a course for tackling those problems that they feel most need addressing if our democracy is to be revived.
I took this ‘declaration challenge’ myself. It required a considerable amount of thought, and a number of stabs at writing a personal declaration, before I was able to put into words what I realized was of most pressing concern to me – namely, that children and youth are largely left out of the political decision-making process, much to their detriment and that of our society.
I’ve discovered in my peregrinations that our youngest often are far more astute on current events – and past ones, for that matter – and far more committed to righting wrongs than their older counterparts. Yet they have little say even in those affairs that most directly impact them, like funding for education and developing meaningful learning experiences that equip them to be not just citizens in the making, but citizens made.
It seems to me only fair that we include our youngest as equal partners in political life — especially given that they, too, joined the cause for independence, risking life and limb in the American Revolution.
If you look at the iconic Spirit of ’76 painting by A.M. Willard, a young patriot is one of the drummers bravely marching through the thick of battle. Andrew Jackson enlisted in a local militia at age 13, and apparently some as young as nine years old were involved. If they risked it all along with the rest of their compatriots, why aren’t they fully part of “all men are created equal”, as they richly deserve? So, I penned for a‘Declaration for Childkind.’
As I crafted this declaration, corny as it might sound, I felt the Spirit of ’76 welling within. The epiphany that emerged was that, more than anything, I want for everyone what I want for my own two precious daughters (we’ll be celebrating the second birthday of our youngest on the very day we formally launch this project on July 2) — ample opportunity to discover and cultivate and contribute their unique talents and stores of wisdom in ways that lead both to self and societal flourishing. And so I’ve vowed to redouble my commitment to contribute what talents I have to making this a world in which this is so – the Declaration Project itself ideally is one way.
The Declaration Project will hopefully serve as one meaningful way for us to more fully realize a world in which all members of humankind matter and count equally, more of us become instilled with the Spirit of ”76.
Speaking of that spirit, at 12:40 pm on July 8, at People’s Plaza just outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, on the grounds of Independence Mall, yours trulywill facilitate a Spirit of ’76 Café at the very venue where our July 4, 1776 declaration was read in public for the first time, connecting even more intimately this project and that of our Founders.
As you look to celebrate this commemorative day, visit the Declaration Project site. As you explore the declarations, sculpt your own, and let it inspire you to tap into your revolutionary DNA in ways that lead you to do all you can to make your world, and our world, all they can be.