During the spring and summer of 1776, days of great drama and of even greater consequence, the congressional members of the Second Continental Congress ratified the decision to separate from England. Since 1763, the colonists had bristled against Parliament with one grievance after the other. Tax piled on tax had been levied on them without any representation in Parliament. In 1775, matters came to a head. The intolerable situation could not stand. All of which brought them to 1776.
In June, the Congress’s Committee of Five assigned Thomas Jefferson to draft the declaration to separate from the mother country. Throughout the meetings, the gentleman from Virginia had remained taciturn, but he was reputed to be the consummate wordsmith as well as a scholar in literature and in science. Jefferson accepted the task—but reluctantly. He had responsibilities back home.
Early in July, the draft was placed before the entire delegation as they edited and pored over words, phrases, and their meaning. An impassive Jefferson sat observing the verbal gymnastics. ‘They’re mangling my prose,’ he thought to himself. But in the end the gentleman from Virginia would be credited as the author of our founding document. It became the inspiration for similar documents of more than one hundred fledgling nations.
Slavery and the Declaration
While the Declaration claimed that “all men are created equal,” slavery still existed in southern colonies. Jefferson and other signers owned slaves. It was feared however that if decisions about abolishing slavery were brought to a vote, the members from the slave states would refuse to sign the document. Years would pass before equal rights and equal opportunity were finally afforded African Americans.
Education of Black Children
Several institutes of religious women engaged in educating black children, regardless of their faith-traditions. We Sisters expected much from them. Motivated and proud of their Catholic education, they did not disappoint. They walked with heads held high. Their personal difficulties were many, but we encouraged them to press ahead through diligent hard work at their lessons.
Class sizes were large—fifty or more. Concentration was placed on teaching the children to spell correctly, write clearly, and speak with conviction. They loved to diagram sentences and present oral topics, especially those linked to their future. Reading and reciting poetry—these they loved as well. The slower readers were brought up to speed while the better ones advanced beyond their class reading levels. This was the Language Arts curriculum. Religion lessons taught them how to pray, strengthened their inner resolve, and formed positive habits.
The children excelled in music and many joined three- or four-part choirs after school hours. Year after year, they won gold medals in choral competitions. They were ready and eager to take their responsible place in American life there to enjoy the freedoms denied their forebears.
Religious Liberty: A Burning Question
The First Amendment to the Constitution states that the government has certain limited powers to preserve the good order of the people, but “government is not juridically omnipotent.” One of its limitations has to do with the distinction between church and state, in their purposes, methods, and manner of organization.
“The freedom of the Church is a pregnant phrase,” writes Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. His thoughts as articulated in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960).
In the first place, it means the freedom of the Church as a spiritual authority to carry out her divine commission.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
But, secondly, it means the freedom of the Church as the Christian people to live within its fold an integral supernatural life, a life with inherent super-political dignity that transcends the goals and power of the state.
The Church then lays claim to immunity from subordination to the state and its temporal ends. The chief example of this concerns the dignity of the whole person, marriage and the family.
Freedom from Coercion
Religious freedom is freedom from coercion. It is the absence of constraints and restraints on individuals in their efforts to pursue freely the positive values of religion.
Religious freedom is the recognition of the inviolability of the human person, individually and in association with others in what concerns religious belief and action.
The people are united in their religious freedom to believe and practice without any governmental coercion, restraints or constraints.