As we head off for the Fourth of July holiday it is worth remembering what we are celebrating – the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was written and signed in Philadelphia, so that in itself makes it partially a local story. In the context of the Revolution it was also a Gratz story. In the years leading up to the Revolution a number of Jews in Philadelphia joined the patriot movement. In October 1765 eight Philadelphia Jewish merchants joined their Christian neighbors in signing resolutions agreeing not to import goods from Great Britain. Among them were Bernard Gratz and Michael Gratz. The Non-Importation Resolutions were an important step toward the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, and the Gratz brothers were active participants in this patriotic movement. The son of Michael Gratz (and the nephew of Bernard) was Hyman Gratz, who was the founder of Gratz College. Michael’s daughter, Rebecca, was the founder of modern Jewish education in America and the “muse” behind Gratz College.
In 1775 the war began and Philadelphia Jews joined the struggle. Two Philadelphia Jews, Solomon Bush and David Salisbury Franks, ultimately became Lieutenant Colonels in George Washington’s Army. While Patriot leaders – civilian and military – struggled against the British, the Continental Congress meeting here in Philadelphia wrote the Declaration, with the formal date of the adoption as July 4, 1776.
The main body of the Declaration – the part most people never read – is a long list of complaints about the British government and the king. It explains why America is seeking Independence. It reads like a lawyer’s bill of particulars at the beginning of a law suit. Lawyers Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert R. Livingston shaped the Declaration, along with Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman.
The first two paragraphs – the preamble – is the part many Americans know. It sets out a theory of democratic self-government and also set out what America stands for. The entire document also creates the basis for religious freedom in America.
The theory of government is simple: Governments are “instituted” by the people “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In 1776 this was a novel idea. Everywhere in Europe there were kings or other royalty who ruled over their people. In America governments, and laws, were made by the people and their representatives.
More complicated was the fundamental creed of the nation – that all people “are created equal,” and endowed with fundamental rights including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This was the intellectual and moral basis for ultimately ending slavery and providing political equality for all Americans. It sets out the core values of our nation.
A century after the Declaration was signed, Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet, wrote the words that are on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus called the statue, which sits in New York Harbor, the “Mother of Exiles.” My grandparents recalled the thrill of seeing “Lady Liberty” in the Harbor as they sailed into the United States, as exiles from Eastern Europe.
Lazarus’s words – “Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – dovetail with the credo of the Declaration. Her poem embodied that the greatness of America has been based on our willingness to extend liberty, happiness, economic opportunity, sanctuary, and political self-determination to those ready to come here. The words and ideas are central to what America is all about. They helped attract millions of Jewish immigrants fleeing European oppression in the early twentieth century (including all four of my grandparents).
Significantly, the Statute of Liberty holds in her hand a book that is inscribed July 4, 1776.
The Declaration also held the promise of real religious freedom – so attractive to so many immigrants. We celebrate all this on July 4. The signers were all Christians; the overwhelming majority of free Americans were Protestants. They might easily have used religion – their religious beliefs – to support the Declaration. Who would have complained? But significantly, they did not. The Declaration acknowledged a divine spirit, but shrewdly rejected any sort of sectarianism. The document argued for independence on the basis of “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” The Declaration argued for inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” because people were “endowed by their Creator” with such rights. At the end of the Declaration the delegates appealed to “divine Providence” for the achievement of Independence.
These secular and vague references to divine powers illustrate that the new nation could be the home to anyone – Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and deists at the time, and later adherents of all faiths. This concept of religious freedom would reappear a decade later, in the Constitution, which provided that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” At the time no other country in the world guaranteed such religious liberty. On the Fourth of July we celebrate not just independence from Great Britain, but fundamental freedoms and liberty for all Americans.
Paul Finkelman, Ph.D., Gratz College President