TIME animals

For National Dog Day, Meet a Hero Dog From 1928

Feb. 27, 1928
TIME The Feb. 27, 1928, cover of TIME

'Max barked until a policeman came to revive Gilbert Kirkwood'

In honor of National Dog Day—celebrated on Aug. 26–allow us to look back at the the first nonhuman to be a TIME cover subject: a basset hound puppy who was a born show dog with champion parents. But the story, which was prompted by the 1928 Westminster Kennel Club dog show, took a much broader look at the state of dogs in America.

“It would be idle to suppose that the tiny fraction of the U. S. canine population which last week posed and strutted in Madison Square Garden was in any sense the most important,” TIME noted. “Other dogs did not pause last week, in the performance of their deeds and duties, to admire the antics of these prototypes.”

Among the canine feats highlighted by TIME was one particularly heroic pooch:

In Manhattan, Max, a police dog, watched his owner, one Gilbert Kirkwood, a plasterer, going to sleep with a cigaret in his mouth. When he saw that Gilbert Kirkwood’s cigaret had dropped and ignited the bedclothes, Max dragged the burning bedclothes away from Gilbert Kirkwood and put them in the kitchen. Then he dragged Gilbert Kirkwood, overcome by smoke, off the bed and put him in the kitchen right next the bedclothes. After this, Max barked until a policeman came to revive Gilbert Kirkwood and to extinguish both his bedclothes and the conflagration caused by dragging these from room to room.

Read more stories of 1920s canine heroism in the TIME Vault: Putting on the Dog

Read next: 21 Reasons This Dog Is the Best Dog in the World

Download TIME’s mobile app for iOS to have your world explained wherever you go

MONEY deals

Here Are the Best Drink Deals on National Tequila Day

150724_EM_Tequila
Jakub Gojda—Alamy

Uh-oh. Tequila Day 2015 is on a Friday. Could be trouble.

July 24 has come to be known as National Tequila Day, and many Mexican restaurants and bars celebrate with deals on tequila and margaritas to appease the masses. This year National Tequila Day falls on a Friday, so look for it to be extra festive.

Independent bars and restaurants around the country are hosting special tequila-themed promotions, and discounters such as Gilt City are offering Tequila Day deals here and there. Here are the top Tequila Day promotions at national chains:

Chevys: Shots of Jose Cuervo tequila are $2 all day on Friday.

El Torito: Same exact deal as Chevys–$2 Jose Cuervo shots all day on Friday.

On the Border: House margaritas and shots of Lunazul Reposado tequila are available at the special price of $2 each on both Friday and Saturday of this weekend.

Abuelo’s: Premium margaritas will be priced at $5.95 all day on Friday at participating locations of this Mexican restaurant chain, which has locations in 14 states. The options include the Agave Margarita, Skinny Margarita, Platinum Margarita, and Cerveza Rita.

If tequila isn’t your thing, perhaps pie and/or beer will do the trick: Friday is also Pie & Beer Day—at least it is in Utah.

MONEY Food & Drink

Best Made-Up Holiday Ever? Celebrate ‘Pie & Beer Day’ on Friday

Pie with pint glasses of beer
Tim Hill—Alamy

Because Pie, Beer & Chocolate Day would just be overkill.

Pioneer Day, held annually in Utah on July 24, is an official state holiday commemorating the day in 1847 when Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley. There are parades, reenactment plays, festivals, and fireworks throughout Utah to celebrate, and most businesses and government offices are closed.

But because Pioneer Day is tied to a specific religion—the original pioneers being celebrated were all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fleeing oppression in the East—not everyone feels included. So sometime around a decade ago groups of (presumably non-Mormon) friends began hosting “Pie & Beer” Day parties as an alternative, to have some fun and make the most of what’s traditionally been a day off from work.

Why pie and beer? Beyond the brilliance of combining two things many people love to consume, it’s a play on words: “pie and beer” sounds a lot like “pioneer.” “Pie and Beer Day was created as a counter culture alternative for people that don’t fit into the established green jello and hand cart mold that has been around for generations,” the Utah Beer Blog explains. As for how to celebrate Pie & Beer Day, it’s as simple as this: “Gather friends and/or family – bring pie and beer – have and consume. It’s been this way for years and it’s a formula that has proven to work.”

As for what kind of pie to consume, traditional pie-pies like apple and blueberry are most often on the table, but pizza pies and meat pies are fair game as well. Root beer is just as welcome as ales, lagers, and stouts too. Pie & Beer Day, you see, is very inclusive.

While Pie & Beer festivities can take place anywhere, last year saw the first large-scale celebrations, and the 2015 edition will be even bigger. (It helps that July 24 this year is on a Friday.) Local radio station KRCL, which hosted a pie-and-beer tasting fundraiser on July 24 last year at the Beer Bar in Salt Lake City, is doing so again this Friday. A $20 “Pie Pass” provides five pieces of pie from local bakeries (craft beer samples cost extra).

The Salt Lake Tribune has rounded up a half-dozen other Salt Lake City saloons and breweries that are likewise hosting “Pie & Beer” specials on Friday, with brews and slices of pie starting at $2.50 each.

Those who celebrate Pie & Beer Day are quick to point out that the festivities aren’t meant to mock Mormonism or any religion. “We’re poking the bear a little bit, but we’re not disrespectful. It’s about kind of accepting the confines of our culture while celebrating our rebellious spirit,” Leslie Sutter, owner of Huntsville’s Shooting Star Saloon, which has held Pie & Beer Day specials for five years, told the New York Times last year.

Come to think of it, it’s pretty hard to argue against pie and beer. If you don’t love one, odds are you have quite a fondness for the other. As for the many, many among us who are enamored with both with equally high intensity, well, Friday will be quite a holiday indeed.

TIME Parenting

How to Make Independence Day More Meaningful Next Year

hot dogs on plate
Greg Elms—Getty Images

Explain the holiday to your kids

From the way the Fourth of July gets celebrated today, a visitor from space might think it’s mostly in praise of fireworks and barbecue. If your weekend left you feeling vaguely like your kids may have missed the point of the holiday, it’s not too late to catch them up.

Elementary age kids, says Joanne Freeman, professor of History and American Studies at Yale, may be interested to think about how the Declaration of Independence was made. “People were thinking through a decision and then making a choice,” Freeman says. “They talked and listened to each other. That’s what’s supposed to be at the heart of the government.” Parents can get a conversation started by asking kids to think about what kind of problems they’d like to solve together—and what are the best ways to talk and listen to each other.

Middle school kids may be interested to know that there were actually many declarations of independence. Freeman points to Pauline Maier’s work in American Scripture, which revealed that groups across the colonies were debating independence and issuing their own statements and resolutions long before the declaration of independence we know today. Why is that important? Because independence was a process, and happened in community, says Freeman. “I want to make sure that people get beyond the idea of 30 guys in a room,” she says. “This was a colony-wide debate. Everyone was thinking and talking about it.” Parents can start a conversation by asking kids what kinds of topics their friends are currently debating, and encouraging them to share their own thoughts.

High school kids, Freeman says, can begin to think about how much work was left undone by the Declaration of Independence. It didn’t offer freedom to people living in slavery or to Native Americans. And in some states, women actually lost the right to vote as the Constitution was written. But, Freeman says, high school kids may also be inspired by the fact that “no one knew what was going on” during the Revolutionary period. Just like today, “they were scared about the outcome.” Knowing that can give kids hope that they’re capable of doing important things, despite the days when they feel uncertain about the future. Parents can open conversations by asking high school kids what changes they’d still like to see in the world, and what changes they might want to be a part of.

TIME Holidays

Read a Hemingway-Era Account of the Running of the Bulls

Pamplona Encierro
FPG / Getty Images The Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, known as 'the running of the bulls' or 'el encierro', circa 1930

"[In] in the second week of July, Pamplona becomes bull-mad"

The festival of San Fermin has been held in Pamplona, Spain, for centuries and the annual event is still the area’s claim to fame. Of the many components of the days-long event, which begins on Monday this year, the running of the bulls (which starts Tuesday) is the most famous part—and, thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the early 20th century is perhaps its most famous era.

The novel concerns—as TIME phrased it in the original 1926 book review—the”semi-humorous love tragedy of an insatiable young English War widow and an unmanned U. S. soldier” and takes place in “prizefights, bars, bedrooms, [and] bullrings in France and Spain.”

In 1932, TIME covered the running (or, rather, “driving”) of the bulls. Though the magazine didn’t employ Hemingway’s terse declarations or calculated repetition, it painted a picture of the world that inspired the author’s story:

For 51 weeks of the year the capital of Navarra is a sleepy little Spanish city where half-naked children play in the narrow streets and café waiters doze under the arcades of the broad, quiet Plaza de la Constitucíon. But in the second week of July, Pamplona becomes bull-mad, its streets and plaza are full of snuffing, rushing bulls. Hotels and rooming houses overflow with visitors from Madrid, Bilbao, San Sebastian, with tourists from St. Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz and Paris. Peasants from miles around sleep in wagons, in the fields, or do not sleep at all. For four days from 6 a. m. until long after midnight sleep is next to impossible while Pamplona celebrates the Fiesta of San Fermín, its patron saint. There are bullfights, street dancing, parades of huge grotesque figures, much drinking of strong Spanish wine. But by far the most exciting ceremony—one which takes place only at Pamplona—is the encierro (driving of the bulls).

Soon after dawn the first day of the fiesta this week, hundreds of youths gathered at the edge of town near the railroad station. Men climbed upon six big cages, reached down and opened them. Out walked six bulls, blinking in the sunlight. They were strong, lithe, handsome, each branded with the mark of Don Ernesto Blanco. They looked around, uncertain what to do, until from the crowd of youths came a yell: “Hah! Hah! . . . Toro!” The bulls lowered their heads, charged the crowd. The crowd took to its heels, the bulls stampeding in pursuit.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Pamplona’s Encierros

TIME Holidays

The Top 5 Myths About the Fourth of July

The First Flag
Hulton Archive / Getty Images An illustration of American seamstress Betsy Ross showing the first design of the American flag to George Washington in Philadelphia

Even the date itself is surrounded by myths

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. A version of the article below was originally published at HNN.

#1 Independence Was Declared on the Fourth of July.

America’s independence was actually declared by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. The night of the second the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the statement:”This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”

So what happened on the Glorious Fourth? The document justifying the act of Congress-you know it as Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence-was adopted on the fourth, as is indicated on the document itself, which is, one supposes, the cause for all the confusion. As one scholar has observed, what has happened is that the document announcing the event has overshadowed the event itself.

When did Americans first celebrate independence? Congress waited until July 8, when Philadelphia threw a big party, including a parade and the firing of guns. The army under George Washington, then camped near New York City, heard the new July 9 and celebrated then. Georgia got the word August 10. And when did the British in London finally get wind of the declaration? August 30.

John Adams, writing a letter home to his beloved wife Abigail the day after independence was declared (i.e. July 3), predicted that from then on”the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” A scholar coming across this document in the nineteenth century quietly” corrected” the document, Adams predicting the festival would take place not on the second but the fourth.

#2 The Declaration of Independence was signed July 4.

Hanging in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States is a vast canvas painting by John Trumbull depicting the signing of the Declaration. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote, years afterward, that the signing ceremony took place on July 4. When someone challenged Jefferson’s memory in the early 1800’s Jefferson insisted he was right. The truth? As David McCullough remarks in his new biography of Adams,”No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”

So when was it signed? Most delegates signed the document on August 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Several did not sign until later. And their names were not released to the public until later still, January 1777. The event was so uninspiring that nobody apparently bothered to write home about it. Years later Jefferson claimed to remember the event clearly, regaling visitors with tales of the flies circling overhead. But as he was wrong about the date, so perhaps he was wrong even about the flies.

The truth about the signing was not finally established until 1884 when historian Mellon Chamberlain, researching the manuscript minutes of the journal of Congress, came upon the entry for August 2 noting a signing ceremony.

As for Benjamin Franklin’s statement, which has inspired patriots for generations,”We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately” … well, there’s no proof he ever made it.

#3 The Liberty Bell Rang in American Independence.

Well of course you know now that this event did not happen on the fourth. But did it happen at all? It’s a famous scene. A young boy with blond hair and blue eyes was supposed to have been posted in the street next to Independence Hall to give a signal to an old man in the bell tower when independence was declared. It never happened. The story was made up out of whole cloth in the middle of the nineteenth century by writer George Lippard in a book intended for children. The book was aptly titled, Legends of the American Revolution. There was no pretense that the story was genuine.

If the Liberty Bell rang at all in celebration of independence nobody took note at the time. The bell was not even named in honor of American independence. It received the moniker in the early nineteenth century when abolitionists used it as a symbol of the antislavery movement.

A visit to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, encased in a multi-million dollar shrine leaves the impression that the bell indeed played a role in American independence. The guides are more forthcoming, though when we last visited they did not expressly repudiate the old tradition unless directly asked a question about it. Our guide sounded a bit defensive, telling our little group it didn’t really matter if the bell rang in American independence or not. Millions have come to visit, she noted, allowing the bell to symbolize liberty for many different causes. In other words, it is our presence at the bell that gives the shrine its meaning. It is important because we think it’s important. It’s the National Park Service’s version of existentialism.

As for the famous crack … it was a badly designed bell and it cracked. End of story.

#4 Betsy Ross Sewed the First Flag.

A few blocks away from the Liberty Bell is the Betsy Ross House. There is no proof Betsy lived here, as the Joint State Government Commission of Pennsylvania concluded in a study in 1949. Oh well. Every year the throngs still come to gawk. As you make your way to the second floor through a dark stairwell the feeling of verisimilitude is overwhelming. History is everywhere. And then you come upon the famous scene. Behind a wall of Plexiglas, as if to protect the sacred from contamination, a Betsy Ross manikin sits in a chair carefully sewing the first flag. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is where Betsy sewed that first famous symbol of our freedom, the bars and stripes, Old Glory itself.

Alas, the story is no more authentic than the house itself. It was made up in the nineteenth century by Betsy’s descendants.

The guide for our group never let on that the story was bogus, however. Indeed, she provided so many details that we became convinced she really believed it. She told us how General George Washington himself asked Betsy to stitch the first flag. He wanted six point stars; Betsy told him that five point stars were easier to cut and stitch. The general relented.

After the tour was over we approached the guide for an interview. She promptly removed her Betsy Ross hat, turned to us and admitted the story is all just a lot of phooey. Oh, but it is a good story, she insisted, and one worth telling.

Poor Betsy. In her day she was just a simple unheralded seamstress. Now the celebrators won’t leave her alone. A few years ago they even dug up her bones where they had lain in a colonial graveyard for 150 years, so she could be buried again beneath a huge sarcophagus located on the grounds of the house she was never fortunate enough to have lived in.

So who sewed the first flag? No one knows. But we do know who designed it. It was Frances Hopkinson. Records show that in May 1780 he sent a bill to the Board of Admiralty for designing the”flag of the United States.” A small group of descendants works hard to keep his name alive. Just down the street from Betsy’s house one of these descendants, the caretaker for the local cemetery where Benjamin Franklin is buried, entertains school children with stories about Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration, who is also credited with designing the seal of the United States. We asked him what he made of the fantasies spun at the Betsy Ross house. He confided he did not want to make any disparaging remarks as he was a paid employee of the city of Philadelphia, which now owns the house.

The city seems to be of the opinion that the truth doesn’t matter. Down the street from the cemetery is a small plaque posted on a brick building giving Hopkinson the credit he rightly deserves.

As long as the tourists come.

#5 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Died on the Fourth of July.

Ok, this is true. On July 4, 1826, Adams and Jefferson both died, exactly fifty years after the adoption of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which the country took as a sign of American divinity. But there is no proof that Adams, dying, uttered,”Jefferson survives,” which was said to be especially poignant, as Jefferson had died just hours before. Mark that up as just another hoary story we wished so hard were true we convinced ourselves it is.

Rick Shenkman is the editor of the History News Network and the author of the forthcoming book, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2015).

TIME People

How Thomas Jefferson’s Wartime Record Shaped His Life

Thomas Jefferson, American president.
Print Collector / Getty Images Thomas Jefferson, American president. (1743-1826)

He wrote the Declaration of Independence—but he fled when British troops arrived

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

On June 4, 1781, nearly five years after authoring the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson fled Monticello just minutes before the arrival of British troops. His term as governor of Virginia had just expired, and Jefferson declined to continue his service, leaving the state without leadership during some of its darkest days.

In his defense, Jefferson made a blunt admission. With Virginia under invasion by a “powerful army,” Jefferson felt he was unprepared by his “life and education for the command of armies.” As a result, Jefferson wrote that he “believed it right not to stand in the way of talents better fitted than his own to the circumstances under which the country was placed.”

The legislature eventually appointed a governor and launched an investigation into Jefferson’s conduct. When Jefferson later sought the presidency, his conduct would be used against him. He was called the “coward of Carter’s Mountain,” a reference to the woods that Jefferson traversed when he was in flight from Monticello. Another critic, a South Carolina congressman named William Loughton Smith, said Jefferson deserved little credit for his revolutionary writings because he had fled “in times of danger.” There was no great merit in composing “famous written works,” Smith said, if he had done so “without risk of personal convenience.” Jefferson felt so burdened by accusations against him that he wrote that the wound upon his spirit would be cured only by the “all-healing grave.”

Jefferson clearly was ineffectual at stopping the waves of invading British forces, led first by the traitor Benedict Arnold, then by William Phillips (whom Jefferson once had entertained at Monticello when Phillips was a prisoner of war) and finally by Lord Cornwallis and Banastre Tarleton. Jefferson spent much of his life defending himself against the charge of cowardice, and tried until nearly the day that he died to present his side of the story to historians. Indeed, there was blame to go around. The militia often were reluctant to turn out. Many members of the legislature and the Governor’s Council fled Richmond, prompting the Assembly’s relocation to Charlottesville and culminating in Jefferson’s flight from Monticello.

But what did Jefferson learn when he was literally on the run, at a time of such torment?

Like so much about Jefferson, the lessons may seem contradictory, but they help explain the man – and president – that he became.

Jefferson, of course, wanted a weak executive as governor of Virginia because of his concerns about putting too much power in the hands of a man who might then become a new tyrant. He also had concerns about the power of a standing army. In the early weeks of the invasion, he was reluctant to go too far in calling out militia, which had been subject to false alarms. Some militia men were also concerned about leaving their families and farm undefended, and did not have the proper clothing or arms.

Indeed, when the Continental Army officer Baron von Steuben repeatedly complained about Jefferson’s inability to turn out militia and supplies, Jefferson responded weakly: “We can only be answerable for the orders we give and not for their execution. If they are disobeyed from obstinacy of spirit or coercion in the laws, it is not our fault.”

But as the British continued to march at will across the state, and as Jefferson learned of draft riots and mutinies, he finally seemed to have an epiphany.

“Go and take them out of their Beds, singly and without Noise,” Jefferson wrote about recalcitrant militia. If they were not found the first time, Jefferson continued, “go again and again so that they may never be able to remain in quiet at home.”

Years later, Jefferson conveyed a lesson to one of his successors in the governorship. A governor should not worry about gaining approval for every action in the event of an invasion if other government officials are unavailable, Jefferson explained. Such a delay “might produce irretrievable ruin.” Jefferson did not believe that the framers of the Constitution intended that its words should be followed so rigidly “that the constitution itself and their constituents with it should be destroyed” due to the lack of authority to repel invaders. Thus, Jefferson concluded, “an instant of delay in Executive proceedings may be fatal to the whole nation. They must not therefore be laced up in the rules of the judiciary department.”

Jefferson, of course, had been responsible for considerably more than “an instant of delay” when the British invaded Virginia, but, he insisted, he had acted when necessary. Jefferson’s Federalist enemies would say Jefferson failed to learn the lesson of the invasion, namely, that a stronger federal force was needed. Jefferson, however, believed the system had somehow succeeded, with the militia eventually turning out and the British defeated with help from the Continental army and French forces.

Twenty years after the invasion of Virginia, Jefferson sought the presidency in part because he was concerned that Federalists would be too quick to wage an unnecessary war against a European power. He considered his victory of 1800 a second American revolution, believing the “reign of witches” had ended.

As president, Jefferson applied another lesson of the invasion of Virginia when he signed legislation that established a military training academy at West Point. The British had easily gotten past Virginia’s defenses, and Jefferson hoped that the academy would produce men who would design better defenses and educate officers who were in line with his thinking.

Then, throughout the eight years of his presidency, Jefferson sought to resist those in Congress whom he believed would push the nation into war. While he did send vessels against Barbary States pirates and vowed that the nation would fight “like men” if a war was necessary, he used an array of measures, including treaties and a controversial embargo, in an effort to avoid a major military conflict. Time and again, Jefferson wrote friends of his desire to keep the nation at peace based on what he had experienced during the Revolutionary War.

“I think one war enough for the life of one man,” Jefferson wrote a friend in 1808, “and you and I have gone through one which at least may lesson our impatience to embark in another.”

Michael Kranish is the author of “Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War,” published in February 2010 by Oxford University Press. He can be reached through his website, http://www.michaelkranish.com.

TIME Holidays

The Dark History of Fireworks

Fourth Of July
Hulton Archive / Getty Images circa 1960: An American flag flies on a flagpole while fireworks explode in the background

Explosions are a great way to celebrate Independence Day—and also a great way to get hurt

A spectacular pyrotechnics display almost never disappoints. So, the week before Independence Day in 1964, New Yorkers with a view of the Hudson River were delighted by a preview of the fireworks they weren’t expecting until days later. Assuming it was a planned lead-up to the Macy’s Fourth of July show, they clapped and cheered, per TIME — and only later learned that they’d witnessed the accidental eruption of a barge full of fireworks, which killed two crewmembers and injured four others.

“So thoroughly institutional have fireworks become these days that the postwar generations hardly think of them as dangerous,” TIME lamented.

But Americans had been downplaying their dangers for more than a century by the time of the barge explosion. Fireworks first became a Fourth of July fixture in the mid-1800s, according to Fireworks, Picnics, and Flags: The Story of the Fourth of July Symbols. These early incendiaries were unrestricted and widely available to the general public, who came up with inventive and sometimes inhumane ways to use them: throwing them at horses, for example, or putting them under milk bottles and flowerpots to create explosive bursts of dangerous shrapnel.

Not everyone saw the patriotism in blowing things up, of course. The book excerpts a Pennsylvania man’s diary entry from Independence Day, 1866:

July 4th is the most hateful day of the year, when the birth of democracy is celebrated by license and noise. All last night and all of today, the sound of guns and firecrackers around us never stopped. It is difficult to feel patriotic on the Fourth of July.

Statistics offer an even grimmer snapshot of the harm done by an unregulated fireworks industry: Over the course of five consecutive Fourths, from 1903 to 1907, 1,153 people were killed and 21,520 more were injured, per the Fireworks authors.

Those numbers have declined over the years, although they’re still high enough for alarm. In 2013, the worst Fourth for fireworks casualties in over a decade, more than 11,000 people were injured and eight were killed, either from head and chest trauma or in house fires resulting from the blasts, per the Washington Post.

In recent years, the most devastating explosions have occurred where fireworks are manufactured and stored—for example,in 2000, a Dutch fireworks factory blew up with such force that it leveled 400 houses, killing 17 people and injuring more than 900, according to TIME—but it’s still worth remembering that a more complete Fourth of July wish might be for the holiday to be not just happy, but also safe.

Read the full account of the 1964 fireworks accident, here in the TIME archives: Safe & Sane

MONEY Holidays

QUIZ: Are You Smarter About Money Than the Founding Fathers?

Cheapskates, spendthrifts, and astute money managers

Founding Fathers signing Declaration of Independence on back of $2 bill
Eric Anthony Johnson—Alamy

 

TIME Opinion

How the Declaration of Independence Can Still Change the World

Declaration of independence 1776 from the Congress of Representatives. Signed by John Hancock, President of the Congress
Universal Images Group / Getty Images Declaration of independence

The key is that its language is inclusive

Three weeks ago Britain observed the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the charter of liberties King John was forced to issue to his barons in 1215. Most contemporary commentaries took the opportunity to point out how far short that document fell of modern principles of justice. It benefited only the great nobles, not the common people; it was not, in any case, fully put into effect for a long time; and it contained some provisions, such as those relating to Jews, reflecting medieval prejudices. As the Fourth of July rolls around once again, some commentators will undoubtedly make similar points about the Declaration of Independence. Yes, the Declaration declared that “all men are created equal,” but it thereby left the female half of humanity out of account. It said nothing about slavery, which then existed in every colony and obviously contradicted its principles. It referred to “merciless Indian savages” whom the King had incited against the colonists. In short, the authors and signatories of the Declaration did not use the language that is fashionable in the 21st century, and thus it is a relic from another time that is irrelevant to our world today.

That view misses two very important points. Earlier generations have revered both Magna Carta and the Declaration because they were critical milestones in the development of modern ideas of liberty and government—milestones that can only be understood in the context of their own times, not according to 21st-century views. More importantly, the authors of the Declaration used universal language which has inevitably led to the extension of the rights and freedoms they championed to more and more of humanity. That language is why the Declaration of Independence still has the power to inspire progress.

Because we have taken the principles of the declaration for granted for so long, we must remind ourselves of how revolutionary they were in 1776. It was “necessary,” Thomas Jefferson and the others wrote, “to dissolve the political bonds” which had connected the Americans and the British, because the royal government no longer met the standards for just and effective government that they themselves were defining. The colonists were acting, they wrote, in the face of “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” acts by the King that in their opinion violated the long-standing principles of British law that had developed over the centuries, and especially since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, during which parliamentary control over the Throne was solidified. The King had refused to allow colonial governments to function properly. He had sent troops to the United States to enforce his will, and quartered those troops among the population. He had tried to deprive large numbers of people the right to elect legislators, and much more. But his government—like all governments—did not exercise power by divine right, only insofar as it respected established principles and traditions of liberty. That idea was shortly to set not only the colonies, but much of the western world, aflame.

In its most famous passage, the declaration asserted the ultimate authority of human reason. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it said: “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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, 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.” Yes, it is true that the colonies had not, and for many years would not, extend all those rights to poorer men, or indentured servants, or slaves—but their language made no exception for any of those categories. Thus, the Declaration established a contradiction between their principles and existing conditions in the 18th-century world. That contradiction was bound to lead to further political struggles. So, although the Founding Fathers referred to “all men”—the Constitution, written 20 years later, generally referred more broadly to “persons”—it was equally inevitable that women would clam their rights as well, and that the logic of the founders’ language would allow that progress, too.

No one understood this better than Jefferson himself. Fifty years later, in the spring of 1826, he was invited, along with the few other surviving signatories, to attend a celebration of the signing in Washington. He began his reply by regretting that illness would not permit him to attend. (Indeed, his remaining ambition was simply to survive until July 4, which is exactly what he and his fellow signatory John Adams managed to do.) Yet he proclaimed the enduring significance of the declaration he had drafted:

“May it [the declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

And so it was, through most of the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries, on every continent.

The struggle for these principles, however, has proven to be an enduring one. In much of the world reason is once again fighting with superstition, and finds itself in retreat. In our own nation, inequality threatens to create a new aristocracy that will ride upon the backs of the masses. The principles and language of the declaration remain by far the best defense against oppression and superstition. Most importantly of all, it is only upon the basis of impartial principles that new coalitions for justice can form. The Declaration of Independence remains a precious part of our heritage—one which we simply cannot do without.

The Long ViewHistorians explain how the past informs the present

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

 

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