And on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, declaring: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
For all the fact that the congressmen got around the sticky little problem of black and Indian slavery by defining "men" as "white men," and for all that it never crossed their mind that women might also have rights, the Declaration of Independence was an astonishingly radical document. In a world that had been dominated by a small class of rich men for so long that most people simply accepted that they should be forever tied to their status at birth, a group of upstart legislators on the edge of a wilderness continent declared that no man was born better than any other.
America was founded on the radical idea that all men are created equal.
What the founders declared self-evident was not so clear eighty-seven years later, when southern white men went to war to reshape America into a nation in which African Americans, indigenous peoples, Irish, Mexican Americans, and Chinese were locked into a lower status than whites. In that era, equality had become a "proposition," rather than "self-evident." "Four score and seven years ago," Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans, "our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." In 1863, Lincoln explained, the Civil War was "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
It did, of course. The Confederate rebellion failed. The United States endured, and Americans began to expand the idea that all men are created equal to include men of color, and eventually to include women.
But just as in the 1850s, we are now, once again, facing a rebellion against our founding principle, as a few wealthy men seek to reshape America into a nation in which certain people are better than others.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 pledged their "Lives, [their] Fortunes and [their] sacred Honor" to defend the idea of human equality. Ever since then, Americans have sacrificed their own fortunes, honor, and even their lives, for that principle. Lincoln reminded Civil War Americans of those sacrifices when he urged the people of his era to "take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Words to live by in 2020.
Happy Independence Day, everyone.
And a very happy Independence Day to you and to all on this substack.
These words are extremely beautiful — they cut to the core of my being. I had memorized them as a child, many decades before becoming a naturalized citizen of the US. They meant everything to me, even though I had never lived here — all the more so when I took my oath of allegiance to a country I have loved since early childhood. What a wonderful day that was! I beamed with pride.
These words still move me, but now, I repeat them with a profound sense of regret, because they have never been fully accurate. I feel that the time has come for “we the people” to uphold their veracity. Our equality has never been less true than in these turbulent times, when our black kin, indigenous people, other persons of color, and our LGBTQ communities continue to struggle for their inalienable rights, especially “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” — even Covid-19 discriminates against them.
Today, I was listening to the words of Frederick Douglass on what Independence Day means to black citizens. It was being read on NPR by a young ancestor of his. I then googled it and read it for myself. What does it mean to them today? I can’t even begin to imagine!
How can the exquisite words of the Declaration of Independence fill our hearts and our minds with resounding joy, because they are being upheld by all — because, at long last, all citizens of this magnificent land stand for its principles of “Liberty and Justice for all?”
Heather, your measured voice is such an important part of my staying informed. Thank you.