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Latham: The flame upon the hill still burns brightly

Jefferson's 'rough draught'

Thomas Jefferson’s “Original Rough Draught” of the Declaration of Independence. It includes revisions marked by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

A few days after June 11 — we don’t know exactly when — Thomas Jefferson sat with his pen to write the Declaration of Independence. It took him two days to scribble it down, which is a remarkably short time to write a document that would change the world.

Jefferson had been chosen by the so-called “Committee of Five” to do the writing and the others on the committee were probably glad of it. Jefferson may have even lobbied for the job. He knew what he wanted the country to be.

It was only a few weeks later, on July 4, when the Continental Congress voted to approve the final draft. At the time, that date was anti-climactic for some, as the delegates had actually voted to declare independence from England two days earlier. John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, that America would celebrate July 2 forever.

That an agreement on the document announcing the declaration would be reached among the delegates seemed certain when, on July 1, 1776, delegates removed Jefferson’s strong condemnation of slavery, though he owned slaves himself.

It may have been the most hotly contested point in the entire Declaration and would take almost another 100 years and a Civil War for the matter to finally be solved.

Even with what happened on the first two days of July, there was work to do July 3. Jefferson was good but the delegates still made 86 edits and cut the length of the document by one-fourth. It should be noted that numerous edits were suggested by Jefferson himself.

All that was done in one work day. I have no idea how many hours they toiled but the very next day they voted to approve our nation’s founding document.

If you haven’t read it in a while, you owe it to yourself to do so. The logic still stands up perfectly. It’s difficult to imagine how it could have been written better and still covered all the concerns of their day.

Now, if you will, fast forward to July 3 of this year. Does anyone believe there is the slightest possibility that anyone in Congress, of either party or any range of political philosophy, could possibly have written a law about anything in mid-June and get it approved by tomorrow?

We couldn’t write a bill on the labeling of kumquats in two weeks, much less have it wind through the machinations of Congress in that time. When it finally got out of committee it would just as likely be about tsetse fly eradication without a word concerning kumquats — and with a rider to send 100 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, just for good measure.

There are so many special interests of every hue that nothing ever really gets done and some lawmakers seem quite proud of the fact no progress is made.

Yet the legislators’ lives aren’t in any real danger. No king from across the sea is going to come looking for those who signed. No, these days delay and obfuscation is the highest order of the day. On that basis, at least, our government sure is successful.

I know there are differences. The decisions made in those founding days were much more momentous. Back then missteps meant consequences that could actually have endangered the nation. Those early leaders certainly made some serious flubs — the Articles of Confederation, most notably — but really nothing compared to today’s mistakes.

If you feel like giving thanks for America this week, give it mostly to those men who stood up almost 250 years ago and weren’t afraid to make decisions and make them quickly. Looking back, we can see they mostly got it right, though some knew at the time that they were tragically wrong about slavery. I hope at least some had the inkling they should have given women the right to vote then and there, too.

That might have been too much to hope for, given the times. It would take almost 150 years before that error would be corrected.

The point was to do the best they could to bring forth the kind of nation unlike any other than then existed on Earth. It wasn’t perfect then or now but the flame of freedom still burns brightly on the hill and some of us can see it quite clearly from where we stand.

— Phil Latham is editor emeritus of the News-Journal. His column appears Wednesday. Email platham@news-journal.com

Today's Bible verse

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ ”

John 8:34

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