It is almost July, and the youth of Cambridge are becoming accustomed to their (brief) period of summer freedom. For most, the law says they must go back to school in September. There is no choice.
But for some -- there is a difference. Teenagers who will soon arrive at the age of sixteen will suddenly find a law that is in their favor and for the first time they can make their own choice about going to school. If sixteen-year-olds decide not to go to school, no truant officer will come chasing after them trying to force their attendance. Whether kids stay in school or not, that is a matter for their own independent choice.
INDEPENDENT? Here we are getting ready for July 4th and no one has identified a special role for youth. Think about it, for kids through the age of 15 where is there any real independent choice? Suddenly at 16 they get to make legal choices. They can get a driver's learning permit and become terrors on the highway. Some do.
But the school choice thing is fascinating because it is such an important and often difficult choice. Do I tell Mom I'm headed off to Montana to live in the wilds of the country? Do I head off to Wall Street to make a fortune? Join a rock band? Apply directly to college, or toss away the chance for a high school or college diploma? Or the most fascinating choice of all -- stay in school but do it “my way” -- taking the interesting courses from interesting teachers and doing interesting special projects.
On July 4 there will be this big deal about Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence. Suppose we updated the 1776 version and came up with a Declaration of Independence for sixteen-year-olds. Below is just such an edited version of the original Declaration specially modified for a sixteen-year old deciding to show his or her independence.
A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE for SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLDS
When in the course of youthful learning, it becomes necessary for the younger generation to dissolve the social links that have connected them with an older generation, 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 us, 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 boys and girls 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, schools are instituted among boys and girls, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of schooling becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the students to reject such institutions at the earliest legal opportunity, and to institute new forms of personal education, 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.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that schools long established should not be rejected for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under tedium, boredom, testing and and bullying, it is their right, it is their duty, to reject such schooling, and to provide new methods for their future education, training, and security.
Such has been the patient sufferance of these students; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of schooling. The history of the present school system is a history of repeated pain and suffering, all having in direct result the establishment of an unreasonable and inefficient learning imposed on these students. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
The school has refused to assent to new school rules, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
The school has adopted laws for testing and academic standards that have little meaning and educational value, and have refused to suspend such procedures or to implement better means of useful education.
The school has called together legislative bodies to make arbitrary decisions on the confusing shifting of names from one school to another, and to invest $80 million in an unjustified system of middle schools, for the sole purpose of fatiguing students into compliance with official measures.
The school has weakened student government and limited expressions of youthful opposition, and has not respected the impending freedom of students who choose to stay in school.
The school has refused for a long time to cause other avenues of individual or representative expression to strengthen the school experience for all; the school remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of disruption from without and convulsions within.
The school has made teachers dependent on the school committee alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
The school has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our youth, and eat out their substance.
The school has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our generation, and unacknowledged by our habits; giving its assent to acts of pretended decrees :
For quartering large bodies of teachers and administrators among us:
For protecting them, by a mock trial, from responsibility for any punishment which they should commit on the inhabitants of the individual schools :
For imposing fees on us without our consent :
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by our peers :
For taking away our charter schools, abolishing our most valuable beliefs,
and altering fundamentally the forms of student governments :
The school has abdicated local government here, by declaring us out of its
protection and waging war against us; they have imposed on us long division, Algebra 2, the capitol cities of every state, and a host of agonies beyond our understanding and toleration.
The school has plundered our swimming pools, ravaged our lockers, burnt our backpacks, and destroyed the lives of our youth.
The school is at this time transporting large armies of foreign bureaucrats to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized city.
The school has excited peer group hostilities amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on inhabitants of the Cambridge frontiers, the merciless townie riffraff, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A school administrator, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free student body.
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our school committee. We have warned them from time to time of attempts to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our involuntary attendance at schools. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and learning. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.
We, therefore, the students attending school in the City of Cambridge, as individuals capable and authorized to decide, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of this Commonwealth, solemnly publish and declare, that the students signed below are, and of right ought to be free and independent of the school system; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the school committee, and that all political connection between them and the school bureaucracy, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent citizens, they have full power to pay taxes, join the Armed Forces in a timely manner, make business contracts and alliances, engage in work and commerce, sacrifice the benefits of high school and college diplomas, put out the trash on the designated day, stop pulling Suzie's pigtails, and do all other acts and things which independent citizens may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
The Continental Congress
In response to the Patriot’s defiant outburst and the destruction of British goods during the Boston Tea Party, Parliament enacted several laws to tighten its control over the colonies. The Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by Americans, punished primarily Bostonians but affected people in all thirteen colonies.
The legislation increased Americans’ resentment toward Britain and galvanized the Patriot resistance. In September 1774, delegates from twelve colonies—the governor of Georgia refused to send a representative—met at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia to fashion a common response to the Intolerable Acts. John Adams, George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry were among the fifty-five members of the First Continental Congress who discussed various ideas and drafted resolutions to address colonial grievances.
One proposal, the Plan of Union, presented by Pennsylvanian Joseph Galloway, called for an American government consisting of a president appointed by the king and a council selected by the colonies. The American officials would regulate internal colonial affairs and possess the power to veto parliamentary acts affecting the colonies, but remain subordinate to Parliament and the Crown. Galloway’s moderate proposal was defeated by a vote of six colonies to five.
Paul Revere then submitted the Suffolk County Resolves that rejected the Intolerable Acts and called upon Americans to prepare for a British attack. After endorsing the resolutions, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights and Resolves, drafted by John Adams. Drawing upon the “immutable laws of nature” and rights of Englishmen, the declaration argued that Americans were entitled to legislate for themselves “in all cases of taxation and internal polity,” conceding to Parliament only the power to regulate “our external commerce.”
During the course of nearly two months, the First Continental Congress endorsed many documents and open letters to the people of Great Britain and Canada explaining their actions. In an appeal to the king, edited by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the delegates blamed the crisis on Parliament and Lord North’s administration. Americans were not yet demanding independence, but sought the right to participate in a free government that protected their liberties within the British Empire. Before adjourning, the delegates organized the Continental Association that called for a complete boycott of British goods. The delegates agreed to meet again in May 1775 to discuss Britain’s response to their decisions.
Tension between the colonies and Great Britain escalated following Parliamentary elections that gave Lord North’s government a majority for the next seven years. King George declared the New England colonies to be in a state of rebellion, and Parliament supported his decision to coerce the colonies. Resistance was also stiffening in America. Colonists increased their efforts to enforce the British boycott by appointing association committees to monitor compliance and expose all violators. People caught breaching the boycott were often tarred and feathered. The failed attempts to negotiate a resolution with Britain prompted many colonists to secure weapons and conduct military drills to prepare for the possibility of war.
In January 1775, orders went out from London to prohibit the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. The following month, Parliament declared that Massachusetts was in a state of rebellion and military reinforcements were dispatched to America under the command of three senior generals—William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. On the night of April 18, General Thomas Gage sent British troops marching from Boston toward Concord. The soldiers were ordered to seize colonial weapons and gunpowder and arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, whom the British considered to be the leaders of the Patriots.
As the redcoats entered Lexington, they encountered a band of colonial militia called "Minute Men" who were trained to fight on a minute's notice. The two groups exchanged heated words and, as the Americans slowly dispersed, a shot was fired. The British continued their march after a brief skirmish, leaving behind eight dead Americans. At the North Bridge in Concord, the redcoats met a sharper fight, and casualties were sustained by both sides. American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson later immortalized the event as “the shot heard round the world.” The Revolutionary War had begun.
On May 10, 1775, representatives from all thirteen colonies met at the State House in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Joining many members from the First Congress were Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson, a young Virginia planter who had recently written essays criticizing the British monarchy and supporting the rights and liberties of Americans. Also representing Virginia was George Washington, a veteran of the French and Indian War, who attended sessions dressed in his colonel's uniform.
Many cautious representatives from the middle colonies feared that radical New England delegates were pushing the colonists into open rebellion. After much debate, the fighting in Massachusetts finally convinced a majority of the delegations that a military defense plan was necessary. Washington’s experience in battle and his willingness to defend America influenced congressional members to appoint him commander-in-chief of the newly formed Continental Army. The selection of Washington to lead the army appeased many conservatives who distrusted the boisterous Bostonians. Washington’s wealth, and his refusal to accept pay for his position, quashed suspicions that he was a fortune seeker.
While the battles at Lexington and Concord pressed many colonists into joining the military forces gathering near Boston, members of the Second Continental Congress believed they could still persuade the king and Parliament to resolve the colonists' grievances without more bloodshed. In June 1775, Congress approved John Dickinson’s "Olive Branch Petition," which was aptly named because of its suppliant tone. It professed American loyalty to the king and begged him to intercede for the Patriots against his controlling Parliament and ministers.
The following day, the delegates endorsed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, written by Dickinson and Jefferson. It proclaimed: “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect.” American Patriots were prepared to fight to preserve their liberties as British citizens. In November, however, word arrived that King George III refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition and officially proclaimed the colonies to be in “open and avowed rebellion.”
As the fighting between the Patriots and the redcoats intensified, the Second Continental Congress assumed the functions of a national government. It appointed commissioners to negotiate with Indian tribes and foreign governments in an effort to form military and diplomatic alliances. It also authorized the creation of a navy and several battalions of marines, and organized a postal system headed by Benjamin Franklin.
The Great Declaration
By the end of 1775, the military conflicts with Great Britain increased the eagerness of many Patriots to declare their independence, but many other colonists, including influential members of the Second Continental Congress, were wary about breaking completely from the Crown. The ties to England remained strong for many Americans and the thought of losing their political and commercial connections to one of the world’s most powerful nations seemed irrational to them.
Many colonists believed that a rebellion would change their lives for the worse. They were familiar with the living conditions under British rule and feared the unknown. The upper class in America did not want to lose their status in society and grew concerned about how average Americans would react to independence. In addition, many colonists wondered if common people could actually govern themselves.
In early 1776, two significant events propelled the colonies toward severing relations with Britain. First, the pamphlet Common Sense was published in January. Thomas Paine wrote the political piece criticizing King George III. While colonial leaders crafted gracious and humble petitions to persuade the king to ease Britain’s control over the colonies, Paine bluntly called George III a “Royal Brute” who was unworthy of Americans’ respect. The pamphlet encouraged colonists to break free from England and start a new independent and democratic society. Paine argued that the concept of an island ruling a continent defied natural law. “We have it in our power to begin the world again,” he insisted.
Reaction to Common Sense was overwhelming. Paine’s diatribe put into words the thoughts of many Americans. Even members of the Continental Congress accepted Paine’s call to action by urging states to form governments and write their own statements of independence.
The following month, Congress learned of the Prohibitory Act, closing all colonial ports and defining resistance to the Crown as treason. Congress responded by authorizing privateers to operate against British shipping. Additionally, Americans discovered that the British government was hiring foreign mercenaries to crush the colonies. Ultimately, nearly thirty thousand German-speaking soldiers, collectively called “Hessians” because the majority hailed from Hesse-Kassel, fought in the Revolutionary War. Many colonists associated mercenaries with radical and illicit behavior including looting and torture. The potential for such cruelty toward Americans, many colonists concluded, doomed the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation. In April, Congress opened American ports to international trade. By that time, several revolutionary state governments were committed to independence from Great Britain.
On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced to the Continental Congress a resolution: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” He further called “for forming foreign Alliances and preparing a plan of confederation.” Lee’s resolution announced America’s break from England, but members of Congress believed a more formal explanation was needed to unify the colonies, secure foreign assistance, and justify their actions to the world. Delegates from the middle colonies, however, were reluctant to support the separation from the mother country and postponed a vote on Lee’s resolution.
In the meantime, Congress appointed a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to prepare a formal declaration. The committee selected Jefferson, the youngest member of the Continental Congress and the delegate who received the most votes in the selection process, to write the first draft. Jefferson spent the next two weeks writing. The committee refined and edited the manuscript before submitting a final version to the Congress on June 28.
Several ideas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence to justify the American Revolution were not new. John Adams, in particular, claimed that Congress frequently discussed the concepts outlined in the document. Additionally, many of the terms incorporated by Jefferson derived from proclamations of independence previously issued by several colonial governments. Jefferson admitted that it was not his task to invent new principles or arguments, but rather the Declaration was intended be an expression of the American mind.
In the preamble, Jefferson referred to the “natural rights” of humankind popularized by Enlightenment thinkers, including philosopher John Locke’s call for “the right to life, liberty, and property”—the last of which Jefferson changed to “the pursuit of happiness.” He also incorporated Locke’s contention that people have the right to overthrow their government when it abuses their fundamental rights.
In a direct attack on George III, Jefferson provided a lengthy list of the king’s violations of American rights. He accused King George of imposing taxes on colonists without their consent, and blamed him for the existence of slavery in America—although Congress deleted that allegation from the final document.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress unanimously passed Lee’s resolution to declare American independence from British rule. The delegation from New York, which represented a large population of loyalists who did not want to break all ties with England, abstained from voting. The Continental Congress spent the next two days debating and amending the Declaration of Independence. The delegates focused primarily on the list of grievances, cutting Jefferson’s harsh assault on the British people for backing the king and eliminating about one-fourth of the original wording. The Declaration, the delegates believed, should explain and justify American independence in a gentlemanly manner.
On the Fourth of July, the delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence. By defying the king and declaring their independence, the Patriots became rebels subject to the penalties for treason. The American revolutionaries realized that unity was imperative to their success. “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” vowed Benjamin Franklin. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”The Declaration of Independence did not immediately garner a great deal of attention from people outside the British Empire. Within a few years, however, the document profoundly influenced citizens from other countries hoping to escape the oppressive tyranny of their rulers. The “French Declaration of the Rights of Man,” most notably, drew upon Jefferson’s ideas and words. The Declaration of Independence remains an inspiration for freedom-loving peoples.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Declaration of Independence" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/declaration-of-independence/>.