July 4. July 14. These two dates mark July as an essential month in the history of human rights.
Equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It all started in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1776. Or did it?
Obviously, the Declaration of Independence did not happen overnight. The quest for independence in the British colonies started in the 1770’s, inspired by principles proclaimed in England at the end of the 17th century.
Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - the last two later to become Presidents of the new United States of America - , are some of the important players in the fight the American Colonies led for their independence from the British rule .
Initially, the American colonists were asking to be granted the rights of Englishmen by the British Crown. In 1774, in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson explains:
These are our grievances, which we have thus laid before his Majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate. (Jefferson, 1774, in Koch et Peden, 1944 : 310)
Soon, beyond the rights of Englishmen, the colonists will be fighting for independence. In Common Sense, the first edition of which is published in Philadelphia in January 1776, Thomas Paine called… for the creation of a republican government – based entirely on the representation of the people – in a newly independent America, and a written constitution guaranteeing the rights of persons and property and establishing freedom of religion… Paine transformed the struggle over the rights of Englishmen into a contest with a meaning for all mankind. (Foner, 1984 : 10)
Himself an Englishman, and a friend of Benjamin Franklin, Paine had recently migrated to the colonies. Common Sense poignantly pleads for a free America, independent from the tyrannic rule to which it is then submitted. O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind. (Paine, 1776 : Chapter V)
A free America will obey the rule of law. But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King. (Paine, 1768 : Chapter V)
And independence will affect future generations. The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now.
The same year, on 12 June 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopts the Virginia Bill of Rights, drafted by George Mason.
A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free convention which rights do pertain to them and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government. (Virginia Bill of Rights, 1776)
Section 1 proclaims freedom and independence.
Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. (Virginia Bill of Rights, 1776)
While the right to property is one of the first to be claimed, the right to justice, derived from Habeas Corpus is not mentioned until Section 8.
Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself
And then comes freedom of the press.
Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.
The Virginia Bill of Rights also recalls core values and principles:
Section 15. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
Rights however are not granted to all citizens, but to the rich planters. This Virginia document was deeply conservative, keeping power in the hands of the planter oligarchy that had dominated Virginia for a century and a half and upholding the status quo. Mason’s declaration retained the property-owning qualification for voting, keeping power in the hands of fewer than one percent of the population. (Randall, 1993 : 268)
Meanwhile, 56 delegates, representing the 13 colonies are meeting in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of the seven delegates from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson is asked to prepare the first draft of a Declaration of Independence. Between 11 and 28 June, Jefferson summarizes ideals expressed by John Locke and others: the first part of the draft is strongly influenced by the Virginia text. This draft is reviewed by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
On 2 July, the Continental Congress begins its review of the text, which is finally adopted in the late morning of July 4, less than a month after the Virginia Bill of Rights. Delegates unanimously proclaim their independence from the British Crown.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. »
While for the Virginia Bill of Rights men are free and independent by nature, the Declaration of Independence recognizes these inalienable rights as given to them by their Creator. Some claim that the first Jefferson draft read We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable and that Benjamin Franklin suggested to replace the words sacred and undeniable by the words self-evident.
The Declaration of Independence does not define rights as precisely as the Virginia Bill of Rights does. Neither did it have to. With indepence proclaimed, the Virginia Bill of Rights served as a model for similar Bills of Rights, which were promptly adopted by the other colonies. The Virginia text also formed the basis of the 1789 American Bill of Rights.