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The Great Experiment: America

Philadelphia was hot during the summer of 1776. The city had no sewage system, the smell was atrocious, and to make matters worse, most people wore wool. There was no air conditioning, there were no iced drinks, and there was certainly no relief for the members of a fledgling, somewhat disorganized and contentious body called the Continental Congress.

During this period, as disorganized as they may have seemed and surrounded by the punishing summertime heat, the Continental Congress did something that changed the course of human history. However, that wasn’t the original intent.

The Continental Congress wasn’t formed with the idea of establishing independence from Great Britain or, for that matter, with the notion of creating a new country. Almost all of the representatives to the Congress began their service loyal to the British Crown and their sovereign King George III. To them the Congress was a means to more forcefully gain proper recognition from Britain. Even when they authorized the formation of the Continental Army and chose Virginia’s George Washington to lead it, they did so with the objective of protecting their rights as Britons. But, that view was changing.

The American Colonies were becoming a new people. There were French, German and Spanish speaking populations. There was a strong sense of individual liberty and a powerful frontier spirit. By the middle of the 18th century many in the Colonies readily referred to themselves as Americans. And it was this nascent sense of nationhood that found its voice in Philadelphia.

The resolution for independence was introduced on June 7 and was just a few lines long. The rules, the only time this has ever been required during the history of Congress, called for a “yes” vote from all 13 colonies. One “no” vote meant the resolution would fail.

However, to many the resolution seemed stark and the Congress decided that a “declaration” should be written. Besides, the resolution’s proponents were practical politicians and they knew they needed more time to sway the wavering colonies.

What the Declaration Committee, and its principal writer, Thomas Jefferson penned was nothing short of a masterpiece. The Declaration was a lot more than just a case for the independence of the American colonies. It also stated certain assumptions. Namely that liberty was not given by any government, but rather was an inherent right of humankind. It also said that governments existed through the consent of the governed.   

These were radical concepts in 1776. No government or popular movement had ever been based on such a philosophy. What’s more, few revolutions have ever faced such long odds.  

Our founding fathers, by all rights, should have been soundly defeated. Britain was the superpower of the era. But, it’s telling that they weren’t. Armed with a powerful philosophy, and their own sense of nationhood, something which is still evolving to this day, they began the largest and most successful experiment in popular democracy and self government the world has ever known. And it’s still an on-going enterprise. Happy Fourth.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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