I've often wondered what happened in the minds of the Founding Fathers on the morning of July 5, 1776.
Of course, from their point of view July 2 was the big day, so it's likely that they woke up thinking of the business of the day, and not posterity. Maybe a few woke up groggy, shuffling around the bedroom for a moment before it came back to them that they'd just signed on to one of the most shocking documents in human history. Maybe a few failed to sleep at all thinking of it. Others no doubt awoke with renewed purpose. If these 56 men were anything like their countrymen today, there was a good mix of regret, relief, apprehension, and firm determination.
And yet, on the outside, nothing was really different. Sun rose in the East again; birds sang, carriages began to roll past; the daily business of living colonial life began as it had the day before and would the day after. Washington had been in the field for months, obliging the British to quit Boston, and in turn preparing to quit Manhattan. More soldiers were on the way from England and elsewhere to oppose the Continental Army. In reply, the nascent country prepared to send embassy to the powers of Europe to implore their help. Five more years of war stood in their path, and after this, six years in which the former colonies nearly "lost the peace," to use today's big phrase.
When was the last time we marked Cornwallis' surrender in Yorktown or the ratifying of the US Constitution? I remember in 1987 there was a big deal about the 200th anniversary of the current American government, but that's about it.
The more I think about it, the more remarkable that seems. In America we do note those things, but as mileposts along the journey of the nation, and not as its departure. In the same way, the further mileposts of Abolition, Suffrage, and Civil Rights prove the strength of the idea that started us and still carries us. And the more I read the Declaration and Constitution, the remarkable logic of it becomes more plain. The colonists had already pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the question. The Declaration is a sovereign statement of what the American country is - the Constitution (and the Articles of Confederation before it) were only a description of how that country's people chose to govern themselves. The big thing was the idea. Once it was shown what people were standing for and fighting for, everything changed. A militia fighting as British subjects for justice under the British King isn't the same as an army fighting for justice under their own law, separate from that king.
Had they failed, and the colonies of the Americas still belonged to the Crown, it would have been the death of that nation, but it wouldn't change the idea; the pledge made by those citizens of the brief-lived United States would still stand without a Constitution, and their sacred honor would live on.
That's why the United States of America celebrates the Declaration as its birthday, every year. May she have many more.