The summertime serves as an opportunity to spend time with family and friends. With the Fourth of July having just passed, it also serves as a time to reflect on all of the things that make America great. For me, it also serves as a reminder of America’s place in history.
The Founders’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary in more ways than one. Of course, it was revolutionary in the literal sense. The Continental Congress declared the thirteen American colonies to be “Free and Independent States … Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.” Of equal importance, however, are the ideas expressed in the Declaration which form the foundation of our nation’s political philosophy.
The Declaration of Independence makes clear that power comes not from the government, but from the people. We are free and we are equal, and our rights are not granted to us by the state – they are inherent in all persons. Thus, in the Declaration we find the following phrase: “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.”
This sentence has been described as the “most potent and consequential words in American history.” Indeed, the Declaration’s dual focus on individual rights and equality was a watershed moment in political thought. The Founders acknowledged that the just powers of government are derived only from “the consent of the governed.” They also affirmed the principle of equality, the idea that all persons are entitled to liberty and other human rights, and that no mark of birth, race or religion should distinguish one person from another.
The nation struggled to make these aspirations a reality. In the opening sentence of his Gettysburg Address, however, President Lincoln reminded us of the foundational principles of the Republic. He described America as a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
These principles may not seem revolutionary today. Two hundred thirty-seven years have passed since the members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, and the principles of liberty and equality seem indisputable to those of us who have grown up believing in them. This was not always the case. Throughout history, power has often been concentrated in the hands of a few – kings, queens, noblemen, and the like. America took a different approach. That is what makes the Fourth of July so special. We are not just celebrating our independence – we are celebrating the American ideal, the principles of freedom and equality that our forefathers fought for so many years ago.
I believe it is important that our children understand these aspects of our history. Last year, I sponsored Senate Bill 165, the Founding Documents Bill, which incorporates the study of historically significant documents into Ohio's American history and government curricula. These documents include the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Ohio Constitution. The goal of Senate Bill 165 is simple: to provide students with an in-depth study of the documents that form the backbone of our government and our political philosophy. Students will gain a better understanding of our state and federal governments, and they will more fully understand their rights as citizens. In the coming years, my colleagues and I plan to build off this success and include more rigor in Ohio's model curriculum.
Other leaders are also making an effort to ensure that students around Ohio learn about the people, documents, and ideas that shaped our state and our nation. For example, the Secretary of State recently launched two new websites – www.OhioFoundingFathers.com and www.OhioHistoricalDocs.com – in order to provide Ohioans with easy access to important historical information about our state. The Ohio Historical Society has also compiled a number of valuable resources, including programs about the founding documents, at www.ohiohistory.org/education/founding-documents. You can use helpful resources like these if you would like to learn more about the founding documents.