The Measure of Remembrance: The Declaration of Independence and the American Future

Editor’s note: This Fourth of July oration was first delivered by G. M. Curtis III on July 1, 1989 in Lone Mountain, Montana, for a conference on American citizenship.

As an American historian and as an American citizen who looks forward to the 21st. century, I place great stock in John Adams’s early 19th. century exhortation to future generations that they remember and celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Technically speaking, I suppose that we are jumping the gun by about one day, since the Continental Congress first agreed to the Declaration on the 2nd. of July 1776.  Actually, the past five days in one way or another has represented a remembrance and a reconsideration of many of those values and beliefs that John Adams cherished enough to tender the ultimate sacrifice: his life and property.  It is altogether fitting and proper, then, as my historical footnote for these discussions and as a remembrance of the Declaration of Independence, to return to the first principles therein contained, principles that not only retain their merit today, but more importantly, offer us hope for the years to come.

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The Virginians

Virginia

Ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Virginia

The Philadelphia Convention rent Virginia’s political elite as no event ever had.  Not only had Patrick Henry refused his proffered seat (he said he “smelt a rat”), but two of the three delegates who stayed through the whole Convention before finally refusing to sign were Virginians.

And not just any Virginians.  Non-signer Edmund Randolph, the Old Dominion’s governor at the time, had served virtually throughout the Convention as chief advocate of the Virginia Plan, which the delegates knew as “Randolph’s Resolutions.”  Perhaps even more significantly, Virginian politicos generally recognized George Mason as their state’s leading constitutional authority.  He had taken the lead in drafting both the Virginia Constitution of 1776—the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world—and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first American declaration of rights.  Mason refused to sign too.

Randolph explained his recusant posture by pointing to the several objections he had developed in the course of deliberations, and then saying that he intended to leave the question open until the people of his home state had an opportunity to express their sentiments.  Mason, characteristically more forthright and less concerned with popular opinion, made no secret of the fact that, as James Madison put it, he “left Philada. in an exceeding ill humor indeed.”

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