Vol. XLV No. 6 — June 1967

4 July 1776

Conrad Hahn

Presumably, every American knows that the Fourth of July is the birth date of our nation. Our children are taught that on that memorable day in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was promulgated by the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.

It was an unusual event in history. A new nation was born, not by treaty or the hidden forces of historical evolution, but by a declaration of separation by the chosen representatives of a part of a mighty empire. Even the name of this new nation was created by declaration. It did not evolve from the geographical and racial backgrounds of its people, like England or France. The very title of that famous document gave our country its name: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.”

One may wonder, however, whether the average American remembers much more about the Declaration of Independence and its significance than those few identifying facts. Even Masons, who revere the famous brethren who signed their names to that remarkable Declaration, could improve their knowledge of what that document contains and their understanding of what it means.

A lodge of Speculative Masons, fulfilling its commitment to “good and wholesome instruction,” should pursue such an educational objective by means of an annual “Fourth of July Program.” Merely having the Declaration read aloud in its entirety, including the names of all the Signers, would be a most instructive patriotic program to commemorate the birth of our nation. (Of course, it should be done by a practiced reader.)

More than half the Declaration of Independence is a recital of grievances and complaints of "usurpations” against “the King of Great Britain.” The members of the Continental Congress, however, accused the monarch symbolically. They realized that they were actually calling to account the Parliament and ministers of the mother country. Even though the intolerable conditions that the colonists were protesting are now “ancient history,” they must be known and remembered if we are to understand the forces that impelled our Founding Fathers “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another people.” To serious students of history those grievances also foreshadow some of the problems that were to beset the new nation for decades after it was launched under a new constitution.

What makes the Declaration of Independence so sacred a document for Americans is the breathtaking courage and daring that it exemplified. It was an act of colossal defiance, of irrevocable separation. War had already begun. Every man who signed that Declaration knew he was risking a barbarous death reserved for traitors. What the British failed to realize was the confidence and spirit of independence that Americans had developed in a century-and-a-half of conquering a wilderness and learning to manage for themselves. They dared to challenge the greatest military power of their day and calmly committed themselves to the outcome: “And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” What a commitment!

What makes their act so astonishing is the realization that the delegates to the Continental Congress expressed the convictions of only a minority of the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies. Even the Declaration admits that "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Less than two years earlier many of the delegates still believed that harmony between the mother country and the colonies could be restored. They joined in "a loyal address to the King” in a resolution of the First Continental Congress. On July 4, 1776, however, the representatives were positive that their decision to separate was absolutely necessary, and confident that their conviction would prevail. What fervency and zeal!

But much more significant than the protests and the decision to separate, to declare their independence, was the Founding Fathers’ statement of the principles by which they were governed in their action. The fundamental ideas underlying their decision became the foundation stone of the new nation they were determined to create. They became the moral and ethical concepts that have been dominant in so much of our history. They were an expression of some of the liberal ideas of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, the same forces that made possible and encouraged Speculative Freemasonry. Masons, therefore, should know the Declaration of Independence as thoroughly as they know their lectures.

God — the Signers of the Declaration believed in God. Deity is mentioned four times in that “charter of liberties”: “Nature’s God” (the source of law), “Creator” (the giver of life), "Supreme Judge of the World” (the dispenser of justice), and “Divine Providence” (the protector). He is no sectarian God; He is the Father of all men; He is the energizing and controlling Force of all the universe. It was that concept of Deity that Masonry adopted as early as 1723 in Anderson’s Constitutions.

The expanding knowledge of the laws that govern the physical and biological worlds had led the scientific thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to marvel at the Divine Intelligence that planned and governed them all. It led others to a reexamination of human relationships and human institutions that helped to set off the political revolutions in America and France. Freedom, the condition of life most prized in every century, was not within the power of kings or tyrants to confer or to deny. It was the heritage of every individual, from God. As the Signers of the Declaration expressed it: “to assume among the powers of the earth that separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them.”

It was these concepts of God and of the orderly universe He governs that enabled Thomas Jefferson to pen the most famous sentence in the Declaration: “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.” Men are inherently equal because they have the same Creator. They are all sons of God, and therefore brothers. Freemasonry has been teaching this doctrine for centuries: “By the exercise of brotherly love, we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family, who, as created by one Almighty Parent are to aid, support, and protect one another.”

One of the most interesting but least understood phrases in the Declaration of Independence is “the pursuit of happiness.” The pursuit is the right, not happiness itself. That cannot be guaranteed. The triple expression, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is not a new statement in the Declaration. In varying forms, but practically always beginning with “life” and "liberty,” it had been used frequently in speeches and documents for at least a decade before 1776.

As early as 1763 James Otis was defining the colonists’ rights to fife, liberty, property, and trade. John Dickinson, in The Farmer’s Letters, 1767-68, wrote that “we cannot be happy without being free — we cannot be free without being secure in our property.” In 1774, the Continental Congress declared that the inhabitants of the colonies “are entitled to life, Liberty, and property.” In June 1776, a General Convention in Virginia wrote a Bill of Rights, whose first article declared “that all men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

As these quotations suggest, the developing concept of men’s “unalienable rights” before July 4, 1776, always included the idea of property and the enjoyment thereof. Why, then, is it conspicuously absent in the Declaration of Independence? It maybe that the committee that framed the immortal document considered it self-evident, obvious, understood. Thomas Jefferson, however, authored most of the Declaration. He was an extremely careful writer. He was not inclined to take things for granted. He may have felt that an emphasis on property would alienate the many property-less “little people” whom he trusted and believed in.

It may be that he was conscious of the immortal quality of the document he was writing, that it might become a beacon light for all men in all ages. In such a frame of reference, only universal hopes and aspirations should find expression. The enjoyment of property is a limited source of happiness. Not all men desire or succeed in finding it that way, yet all men pursue happiness. Masons who truly understand the Speculative Art will give Thomas Jefferson credit for such a spiritual conception.

In the Space Age of the 1960s, however, “the pursuit of happiness” has a fearful, frenzied quality that the Signers of the Declaration wouldn’t understand. The modern world is filled with a sense of danger; it is even more bewildered by a sense of spiritual confusion.

The savagery of civilized men in two World Wars and their satellite conflicts has given mankind no great confidence in the nature of man himself. The fear of atomic annihilation has permeated all the thinking of our era. The growing demand of people in every quarter of the world to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has led to seething restlessness and upheavals that destroy the peace and tranquility of every society. Exploding populations intensify the dissatisfactions.

Underlying all the confusion and uncertainty is the greatest fear of all: the fear of the tremendous power that knowledge has put into the hands of man. So rapid is the increase of that knowledge in our time that no individual can understand all the potentialities of the power within reach of our collective hands. Instead of recognizing this development as a triumph of the intelligence and imagination of man, as a manifestation of the nature and quality of God, men despair and cry that God is dead. The individual feels insignificant; he relies on materialistic satisfactions to give meaning to his life.

Is this our heritage from those practical idealists who framed the Declaration of Independence? Hardly. It is a new situation in which we must redefine our independence. The enemy we fight is not a king or Parliament. It is a more complex and sophisticated foe the fantastic increase in mechanistic power. How shall we preserve the individuality of human beings in the face of new concepts of the human mind and body? In the face of organized propaganda, “depth psychology,” and the techniques of subliminal invasion of the mind? In the possibilities of drugs and chemicals that directly affect and alter individual personality?

Perhaps it is time for an enlarged declaration of the rights of the individual that our forefathers described as “unalienable.” They named only three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but acknowledged there were more.

If Masonry is “a way of life” to make men wiser and consequently happier, Freemasonry must teach mankind that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by means of brotherly love, relief, and truth.”

Speculative Masons know the absolute necessity for such moral and spiritual qualities in the pursuit of happiness. Let that concept of freedom ring!

The Masonic Service Association of North America