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Four Things Every American Should Know About the Declaration of Independence
Every American knows that July 4th marks the day, 243 years ago, that the Continental Congress adopted a declaration asserting independence from British rule. Unfortunately, that’s about all we seem to remember. And every month brings new evidence that Americans don’t know their history, and that, unsurprisingly, colleges and universities aren’t teaching it.
When the fireworks and pageantry rouse feelings of pride tomorrow, remind friends and family that their patriotism is justified. Remind them the Declaration of Independence is one of the most consequential documents in human history. And remind them that when we celebrate American independence, we celebrate more than a revolutionary event; we celebrate the principles that Thomas Jefferson articulated to guide the design and development of a new kind of political system that made us one people.
Before the Revolution, no nation had ever asserted the right to establish a new form of government from “reflection and choice” that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
This differentiates American republicanism from the ancient democracies, which also permitted broad citizen participation, in a fundamental way. Our constitutional system was not designed simply to enable the majority to rule, but above all, to ensure that representative government would occur within boundaries set by the natural rights of all members of the political community.
Thanks to America’s success, the experiment was emulated to such an extent that by the end of the 20th century the number of democracies in the world had grown to 120. As David Armitage has noted, more than half the countries represented in the United Nations “have a founding document that can be called a declaration of independence,” with many inspired directly by Jefferson’s.
Of course, many of those early experiments failed outright or were short-lived. And though it may be difficult, in an age of ubiquitous liberal democracy, this form of government was not foreordained. Alexis de Tocqueville, that great prophet of American democracy, worried in the 1850s that the entire enterprise was teetering on a knife’s edge.
News from the United States, that slave states were being added to the union—strengthening the political influence of slaveholders and deepening the country’s sectional divide—led the Frenchman to worry that America’s failure, at this crucial juncture, might doom the liberal democratic experiment everywhere. As he put it in an 1857 letter to Jared Sparks, “The crisis into which [the country] is thrown by the issue of slavery is the subject of my worries and I would very much wish that you could give me reassurance about the future of the Union, to which that of liberty in the entire world is perhaps attached.”
Things got worse before they got better. And Tocqueville was right: the Union faced no greater challenge than the evil of slavery. It took a civil war and the collective effort and sacrifice of an untold number to move the country beyond the compromises brokered with the slave states in 1787, a terrible minimum price to pay for a single union.
But it is hard to imagine that Abraham Lincoln, anti-slavery activists, or civil rights reformers could have been successful in the long effort to end slavery and segregation if not for the powerful aspirational language woven by Jefferson into the country’s DNA.
Here are a few things every American should know about the Declaration of Independence we celebrate this week (with links to documents that every American should read).
First: Don’t let anyone tell you Thomas Jefferson didn’t mean to include African Americans when he wrote “all men are created equal.” His original draft included among justifications for independence King George’s use of his veto to encourage the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or as Jefferson refers to it, “this execrable commerce.” In what would have been the strongest language in the Declaration, he calls slavery a “cruel war against human nature itself,” and acknowledges the violation of “its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people” carried “into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
Delegates from Georgia and South Carolina objected to including the language in the final draft—because they knew exactly what it meant. And while it’s true that the Constitution prohibited the abolition of the slave trade for 20 years, Congress did act to end the “execrable commerce” in 1807—in a law, signed by President Jefferson, that took effect January 1, 1808, the first day it was constitutionally permissible for the Congress to do so. Similarly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in, and thus the admission of new slaves from, the Western territory. On balance, then, as Lincoln argued in his “Cooper Union Address,” the Framers had good reason to think they had put slavery on the road to extinction.
Second: Not without justice, history has not been altogether kind to Jefferson’s legacy. A slave holder himself who, due to his profligate habits, could not have manumitted his slaves if he wanted to, Jefferson nonetheless hoped the United States would one day abolish the institution. In 1820, he wrote to John Holmes on the subject of the Missouri Compromise. In the letter, he calls slavery a “heavy reproach,” pointedly rejects characterizing human beings as “property,” acknowledges that “justice” requires freeing the slaves, and expresses hope for a “general emancipation” over time.
But the main point of the melancholic letter is to criticize a law he believed would deepen sectional hatreds and, in his judgment, make emancipation harder to achieve. He calls the law “the [death] knell of the Union,” an “act of suicide. . . and of treason against the hopes of the world,” ending the missive by expressing profound disappointment in the political class that succeeded the Founding generation: “I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.”
Third: As Providence would have it, a most worthy son did come along to realize the promise built into the Founders’ experiment. Abraham Lincoln believed that the “plain unmistakable language of the Declaration” was designed to guide later efforts to restrict and ultimately to end slavery. In an 1857 speech criticizing the Dred Scott decision, he rejects Chief Justice Taney’s argument that Jefferson could not have intended “all men” to include the descendants of slaves because “they had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order.”
It is in this context, three years before he was elected president, that Lincoln most beautifully articulated the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. He points out that the soaring universal language of the Declaration was not necessary to achieve its immediate object. Americans could have claimed independence on the basis of their rights as English colonists to representation. For Lincoln, the Framers’ purpose was lofty, obvious, and undeniable. They “meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Lincoln would rise to national prominence the next year arguing that Congress has the power, and indeed the responsibility, to prevent new states from entering into the union as slave states. As Harry Jaffa reminded us, Lincoln understood that public ambivalence to the expansion of an evil institution would destroy the American spirit by eroding Americans’ commitment to the Declaration’s truths. After seven debates, reprinted in newspapers around the country, he lost the Illinois Senate seat to Stephen Douglas. But the Lincoln-Douglas debates made Lincoln a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination two years later.
Three years after that, with the country embroiled in a terrible civil war, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and, at Gettysburg later the same year, he gave the most famous speech in American history. Reminding those assembled that “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln called for a “new birth of freedom” so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” Underline that point in red: The most famous speech in American history is about honoring those who died in the Civil War by fulfilling the promise of the Declaration.
Fourth: In his immortal 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., allied himself with Jefferson and Lincoln—“extremists” in the cause of justice. He articulated a Lincolnian understanding of the country’s principles and, in asking his countrymen to live up to them, he reminded Americans that even “before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.” He was optimistic that his great movement would finally succeed, centuries after the first Africans were brought to the colonies in chains and more than one hundred years after Lincoln, because he was asking Americans to live up to principles they believe in: “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
The same year, John F. Kennedy gave one of the most courageous presidential speeches of the 20th century. Referencing the events in Birmingham, Alabama, and the deployment of the National Guard to make possible the admission of two qualified African American to the University of Alabama, he asked “every American” to “stop and examine his conscience.” How is it that a Democratic president, at a time the party’s Congressional delegation was still dominated by segregationists, had the fortitude to admit, “We face. . . a moral crisis as a country and as a people?”
Simple: JFK understood the country’s principles, he knew they were good and right, and he believed the time had come “for this Nation to fulfill its promise.” When he asked Americans to live up to that foundational promise, he pulled no punches: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. . . We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?”
It is hard to imagine a president from either party making as principled a speech today. It’s not hard to guess why. There is precious little evidence that public servants know much more about their country than the citizens they represent. In forgetting our history, however, we inevitably let erode our confidence that the country’s principles are worth celebrating and worth teaching. And we risk forgetting that we build a more perfect union for our posterity not by jettisoning the country’s founding ideals, but by working to live up to them.
Ronald Reagan ended his “farewell address” by warning “of an eradication of. . . the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” Indeed, his final piece of advice to his fellow citizens from the White House was to encourage Americans to “start with some basics—more attention to American history and a greater emphasis of civic ritual.” Just as Reagan encouraged children to ask their parents “what it means to be an American,” so today every citizen should demand better civics education from our schools, colleges, and public leaders.
Every country celebrates its origins. This, and every July 4th, Americans have the great privilege of observing a civic ritual that commemorates the establishment of a new form of government, responsible for building a world that is freer, more prosperous, and more open to learning and difference than any other that has existed in human history.
Calvin Coolidge put it best in 1926 to mark the country’s 150th birthday. “There is something beyond the establishment of a new nation, great as that event would be, in the Declaration of Independence which has ever since caused it to be regarded as one of the great charters that not only was to liberate America but was everywhere to ennoble humanity. It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history.”