Prelude to Independence

06/25/2013 06:10 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

We are a nation founded on ideas. The humanities -- history, philosophy, literature and the arts -- are the very building blocks of our society and government. At this time of year, when we honor the events of 1776, we should also remind ourselves of the important role the humanities must play in our schools, our universities, our workplaces and our homes.

In the spring of 1776, the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia. Delegations from thirteen of the British Empire's colonies could act not as independent representatives. All were bound to wait for instructions from home legislatures, and to date none had received instructions to propose American independence. On May 15, 1776, the Fifth Virginia Convention meeting in Williamsburg's Capitol building declared the colony of Virginia independent and "Resolved, unanimously" to instruct Virginia's delegates in the Continental Congress to propose "THE UNITED COLONIES FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES." When I was a teenager growing up in Colonial Williamsburg, we celebrated the period between May 15 and July 4 as the "Prelude to Independence."

That teenager is long departed, but my appreciation for the historical events of those few weeks in 1776 has increased with each subsequent year. I understand more clearly the daring and innovation of those months. The Fifth Virginia Convention went on to adopt a Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 12, 1776 -- the first American declaration of rights -- articulating all the principles that would appear ten years later in our Constitution's Bill of Rights. And on June 29, the Convention adopted a Virginia Constitution. In Philadelphia, a committee composed of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson met at the behest of the Continental Congress to draft a national declaration. On July 2, the Continental Congress voted for American independence; on July 4, it approved the Declaration of Independence. It was a remarkable summer -- perhaps one of the most remarkable in the history of the world. It was possible because these individuals -- our founding generation -- venerated education in philosophy, history, literature, arts and natural sciences -- what we today call the humanities.

Jefferson reminded Henry Lee in a May 8, 1825 letter that all the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence came from "conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." The declaration did not define "new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of." The American founders culled these ideas from their humanities studies. They read the works of Enlightenment philosophers from the past century and beyond. They read ancient history. They studied religions. They embraced literature and the arts. They studied foreign languages. Study, discussion and debate convinced them that a new kind of self-governing citizen could prosper in America.

These founders were not naïve. They understood from their studies and observation of their own times that humans are corruptible and self-absorbed. They acknowledged human imperfection, but they were inspired by the potential of Enlightenment values. The result of all these collective years of learning in the humanities was the United States of America, a grand ongoing experiment in self-government -- and these founders understood that each subsequent generation would have to secure that fragile, imperfect experiment for themselves.

And that is where we find ourselves today. Can we -- Americans of the twenty-first century -- secure those Enlightenment ideals of self-government for ourselves? Not without history, literature, the arts and humanities. It is fitting that we pause now, during this "Prelude to Independence," and rededicate ourselves to this nation's humanities heritage. On June 19, 2013, the Commission for Humanities and the Social Sciences issued its report, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. I recommend you read it. It is not just for teachers and education administrators. It is not just for government officials. It reminds every citizen that our nation -- built on Enlightenment ideals and the study of the humanities -- cannot endure without lifelong study of literature, arts, philosophy and history.

The future of the republic rests in your hands and in the hands of every citizen. Start working now. During this "Prelude to Independence," read the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read The Heart of the Matter. Engage others in your community in the discussion. The challenge is to reintegrate the humanities into our schools, our universities, cultural institutions, our places of work -- indeed, into every American institution. We are a people forged not of race, ethnicity or geography. We are united by ideas -- Enlightenment principles -- without which our experiment in self-government cannot endure.