Commentary

Amend it!

Legislative process even affected the Declaration of Independence

I f you’re ever frustrated by the legislative process—and who hasn’t been—just remember a scene from the movie version of the play 1776, which follows the famous events in Philadelphia 235 years ago this summer.

Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams are waiting outside the legislative chamber for the clerk to finish reading Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

They open the double doors and stroll into the Chamber, their faces full of pride and awe as the last line “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor” echoes in utter silence.

A beat passes. Then the chamber erupts with delegates shouting, stamping feet, waving papers and fingers, proposing changes and challenging sections of the most famous document in American history.

Jefferson, Franklin and Adams sigh, their faces fall and they trudge to their desks to resume their work.

That’s not exactly the way it happened but not too far from it. According to the National Park Service, the Declaration was debated, discussed, cussed and amended for three full days before it arrived at the form with which we are so familiar.

Most of the changes were miniscule. Some were substantive. The delegates, for instance, changed language on slavery and on condemnation of the English people.

There are a lot of scholarly reasons explaining that debate but here’s one that’s easy to understand.

That’s what free people do when they make decisions, even decisions about freedom. May be messy, may not have the elegant touch of unanimity provided by a monarch’s wave of the hand, but that’s what freedom looks like.

Not much has changed in that regard. But then, would we really want it to?

All the fuss was about trying to make the adoption of the Declaration unanimous. And it was, sort of. Twelve colonies voted in favor. New York didn’t vote at all. No instructions from the assembly back home in time for the vote.

New York voted “yes” later. New York is in the U.S.

Not pretty, not “procedural.” Just free.—M.B.


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2011-06-30 digital edition



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