It was on this day 241 years ago that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was signed. It’s ideas, influenced heavily by the Enlightenment and English Liberal thinkers, laid the foundation for a new nation. A nation that would quickly become the wealthiest, the freest, and the most comfortable country in the history of the world. It should not be taken for granted that we as humans had to strive to this point. We are, after all, the same humans that lived in caves. This is the future. Things are different. Things are better… for all. Yes, all.
There are two disclaimers I must make. I cannot pretend to give or know the full historical scope of how we have become so advance and so relatively civil, and I will not sit behind a computer and tell anyone that our history, even just since the signing of this Declaration, has been perfect for all people. In fact, it’s littered with atrocities so numerous and awful I cannot begin to list them; to leave but one out would, to me, be inexcusable. Each of you knows what I’m referring to. Nevertheless, the “self-evident truths” about equality of men and their rights that at first were only protected for a few, have since been expanded. That is to say, we have as a people rooted in these ideas pressured the government to expand its protections of rights to all people (as they are inalienable they cannot be granted, only protected). But does the fact that all rights were not protected from the beginning discount the validity of these ideas and their roots? At times, it can feel like the answer to that would be yes. However, I’m going to venture to say no. I’m taking the position that it is because of the ideas in the Declaration that we have since its signing taken the initiative as a country to expand what “all men” means. The ideas are certainly better than the execution, but look at how far we’ve come and the potential for improvement. Before we, based on the possible sins of those who came before, turn our backs on our founding principles, we should try to really examine how it was that we have, in fact, constructed the most liberty-minded place ever.
Take another look the famous excerpt below. We often only think of the Declaration’s philosophical declaring of rights, but really, it’s practical use was to declare sovereignty of the colonies from the King. The liberal language regarding equality and rights was not necessary to achieve that goal. So why include it if not to lay the very foundation upon which this liberal project, this free society would spring?
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…” Read the full text here.
Michael Gerson of the Washington Post explored this very topic yesterday in his Op-Ed America isn’t a normal country.
As Abraham Lincoln noted, the Declaration could have established national independence without its second paragraph about the human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal,’” Lincoln argued, “was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” As he saw it, the Founders, while constrained by the political realities of their time, set out a non-arbitrary, timeless truth “for future use.”
“They meant simply to declare the right,” said Lincoln, “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 . . . even though never perfectly attained.”
Has there been a long record of horrendous activities against certain groups of people in this country? Yes. Is there still more work to do? Of course. Have we been able to make improvements for the good of all people, just as our founding maxim intends? Undoubtedly yes.
Be critical of this nation’s flawed history. It is absolutely necessary. If we are intellectually honest, we cannot and should not overlook the ways in which our ancestors have fallen short, especially when they did so purposefully. But we cannot stop there with our honesty. We must try to recognize not only the ways in which we have failed, but also the ways in which we have triumphed, the ways in which freedom has expanded in this country.
It is my belief that if we want to continue the expansion of freedom, then we must not neglect the liberal ideas that have gotten us this far. Divinity of every individual, free thought, free speech, reasoning, objective truth, and objective morality are inherent within liberalism and are embedded into the document that was signed this day 241 years ago. We would do ourselves great harm to disregard them now.
Happy Independence Day, John Osterhoudt