From Breaking Up to Building a Nation

From Breaking Up to Building a Nation

by Jamie Corkran

On a recent tour with 9th grade students our conversation turned to the Declaration of Independence.  My first question to the students was “What was the Declaration of Independence?” I was anticipating the answer, “a letter,” but I received something even better.

“A Breakup Letter” came the guttural reply from a tall, lanky, ninth grade boy. A Breakup Letter – what a brilliant reply and how true!  Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a teenager more than a breakup letter, so a breakup letter is an excellent metaphor to grip students into relating to the relationships and impact of this life-changing letter written by the Continental Congress to King George the Third, Parliament, the world and fellow colonists.

The lead teacher explained that as she started class one morning, she pulled a crumpled piece of paper,  obviously handwritten, out of her desk drawer and said she had found it on the floor the prior afternoon after class.  She started reading the letter to the class – it was a breakup letter – a letter expressing cherished good times and  regrets of a relationship gone bad – a bitter ending, yet hope for their bright independent futures.  I’m sure that the heart of every student skipped a beat in trepidation and familiarity!

Who had written the letter?  Who had been in a relationship and was now breaking up?  The teacher was quick to relate the breakup letter to the Declaration of Independence:

What was the Declaration of Independence and who was it written to?  It was a letter – a letter to the world explaining why the colonies were pushing forward in rebellion against England. An explanation of why they were seeking independence. It was such a radical concept that it needed to be explained as clearly as possible to earn acceptance.  It was a letter written to King George III and the Parliament of Great Britain, ourselves and to other countries.

Why was it written?  It was drafted as an ACT OF REBELLION. The 13 colonies believed that the government of Great Britain no longer supported their rights and so they set out to govern themselves.  The DECLARATION powerfully expressed the political principles of an emerging nation.  As a justification for severing ties with England, the DECLARATION presented a list of grievances against the King and declared the colonies to be sovereign states.  There are 27 grievances listed – that’s a lot of mad!

It takes 10 minutes to read the DECLARATION out loud.  Ten minutes!  The new government of the United States of America was angry and wanted to prove to the rest of the world that they had legitimate reasons to break ties with Great Britain. They also hoped that other countries might offer support for their cause against the tyrannical British.

When was it written? The Declaration of Independence was signed by the 13 colonies on July 4, 1776. Yet a major incident pre-dates the signing. The fact that we even have a Declaration of Independence can be credited in a large part to Governor Dunmore, who at that time was the Royal Governor of Virginia.  It was Lord Dunmore who ordered the Royal Navy to remove the gunpowder from the Powder Magazine in Williamsburg in April, 1775.  At that time, Colonists were divided with one-third for independence, one-third against independence and one-third were undecided.  However, Governor Dunmore’s “Gunpower Incident” swayed the undecided toward independence and propelled the colonists to launch a rebellion against England.

Who wrote the DECLARATION?  It was written by the Committee of Five, men who were appointed to write the document.  The five individuals were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.  These men were inspired by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention of June 12, 1776. Thomas Jefferson is revered as the author of the DECLARATION because he wrote the original draft.  In addition to his mentor, Jefferson was also influenced by Thomas Paine and his pamphlet “Common Sense,” John Locke’s “State of Nature,” and philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire from France.

There are 56 signers of the DECLARATION – all the members of the Continental Congress. The first signer and most famous signature was that of John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress.  Seven of the signatures were Virginians. In signing the DECLARATION, these men “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor” and became traitors to Great Britain.  Had the Continental forces not won the war, all those who signed the document would have been tried and hung for treason.

So as you can see, there was a great amount at stake and a great amount to be gained by the DECLARATION.  Who could imagine that a breakup letter could lead to the building of the world’s greatest nation?