Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture
2015-07-01 14:36:56 -
World News
On 4 July this year, Americans in the United States, Ireland and around the world will celebrate the 239th anniversary of the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence. However, what most people don’t realise is that we Americans probably would not be celebrating that date were it not for the signing of another document 800 years ago on 15 June 1215, the Magna Carta.
But first, some facts about the Declaration of Independence that most of my readers and many Americans are not aware of. To begin with, the Second Continental Congress actually voted for a resolution proposed by Richard Henry Lee on 7 June declaring the United States’ independence from Great Britain on 2 July 1776. On 3 July, one of the signatories, John Adams, even wrote his wife Abigail, declaring: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.”
The reason for the discrepancy lies in the Second Continental Congress’s decision to appoint a Committee of Five to draft a statement that would proclaim to the citizens of the 13 colonies and the rest of the world the reasons why America was leaving the British Empire. The Committee of Five members were; Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president; John Adams, the second president; Benjamin Franklin, the first US Minister to France; Robert Livingston, the first US Secretary of Foreign Affairs; and Robert Sherman, the father of the US Congress.
After the Second Continental Congress declared America’s independence on 2 July, it then turned its attention to the wording of the “broadside” proclamation that would be printed and distributed throughout the United States. The congress spent the next two days debating the wording of the Committee of Five’s draft. Before it adjourned, it voted to shorten the proclamation by almost one quarter, in addition to removing Thomas Jefferson’s denunciation of slavery and claim that Great Britain had forced the practice of slavery on the 13 colonies.
The independence resolution of Richard Henry Lee that the Second Continental Congress had approved on 2 July was also added as the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. After that, John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, sent a handwritten ‘fair copy’ of the final declaration to James Dunlap, an Irish immigrant and native of Co Tyrone, who then proceeded to print the first 200 published versions of the Declaration of Independence.
Because the final declaration was written the evening of 4 July, the finished proof of what came to known as the ‘Dunlap broadside’ of the Declaration of Independence carried that date. As a result, the 200 Dunlap broadsides that were released on 5 July 1776 and subsequently distributed throughout of the 13 colonies, carried a banner reading: “In Congress, July 4, 1776 A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America.” So know you know why we Americans celebrate our Independence on the 4 July instead of two days earlier.
But what is the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta? While it’s true that the first Magna Carta was concerned with the rights of English barons and their relationships with England’s monarchs, not the rights of individual citizens, the Magna Carta is important because it codified the idea that monarchs could no longer do as they pleased. It encompassed political reforms that included protection from illegal imprisonment and also placed limits on taxation.
The Magna Carta was devised by the Archbishop of Canterbury while he was trying to mediate a conflict between an unpopular King John – also Lord of Ireland – and a group of unhappy British barons. It was an attempt to reign in the previously absolute power of the British king by requiring the monarch to seek the approval of any new taxes from a royal council of barons. While this council eventually evolved into the present day British parliament, the political mythology surrounding the Magna Carta is that it also stood for the protection of individual liberties.
The settlement of the American colonies began in earnest during the 17th century when British MPs used the Magna Carta to contest the “divine right of kings” arguments of the Stuart monarchy. Not surprisingly, the early American settlers also brought the ideas embodied in the Magna Carta with them, but with a subtle twist. In England, the Magna Carta was seen as a legal argument favouring parliamentary supremacy over the king, while in the American colonies it was viewed as a lawful claim that was superior to both king and parliament. That’s why the American colonists initially viewed themselves as English patriots who were only defending the ‘no taxation without representation’ principles and individual liberties guaranteed to them as Englishmen by the Magna Carta. 
As Americans, today we embrace the core principles of the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So even though the Magna Carta said nothing about individual liberty, I contend it provided the foundation for the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas pursuing a career in public service. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011 and pursued a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy.
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