I once asked a college professor what he found most fascinating about American politics. I suspect I was trying to figure the answer out for myself, too. He said it had to do with the power of ideas in American life, ideas that are rooted in, and reinterpreted through the lens of, our revolutionary founding. In other words, my professor was expressing his love of the Declaration of Independence and its centuries-long influence over our political life.
It is that heritage we celebrate on July 4th. No ideas are more important to American politics than those set down in the Declaration of Independence, a document that has inspired freedom movements within the United States, and well beyond our borders, for 241 years.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Declaration reads, “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.”
These words were lifted up by American abolitionists in their fight to end slavery.
They were deployed by Abraham Lincoln, first as a congressman opposed to the expansion of slavery, and later as a president who hoped to see the institution’s demise.
They were invoked by Dr. King, most famously in his “I Have a Dream” speech. The Declaration, he said, was a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”—a promissory note that, in the case of black Americans, had “come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” But his choice of the promissory note metaphor is telling: in insisting on the civil rights of all Americans, he was laying claim to what he saw as the rightful inheritance of all citizens. A debt was owed, and he was intent on seeing it paid back.
Perhaps this is why the founders of the Confederacy rejected the founding significance of the Declaration of Independence: they understood the full implications of the text, and thus understood that no form of human degradation, least of all slavery, could exist in a country aligned with the Declaration’s principles.
Human societies, like human beings themselves, are complex, fallible, contradictory. It is well understood that the author of the Declaration of Independence owned enslaved people. George Carlin once joked about this absurdity: “This country was founded by slave-owners – who wanted to be free!” We are lofty and inspired one moment, riddled with selfishness in the next, and seemingly unlimited in our capacity for rationalizing our own shortcomings. But somehow, we know that the truth catches up with us, a truth expressed when Thomas Jefferson, reflecting on the persistence of slavery in America, wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect when God is just.”
And so the United States was founded as and remains a deeply human creation, marked by all the selfishness, brokenness, and cruelty that defines so much of world history. But, in the timeless words of the Declaration of Independence, it was also founded on a belief in the best of human nature, not merely the worst; in the capacity for making real on our promises to do and be better.
This is who we are: broken, but trying to be better; capable of exploiting others and also capable of expressing, and working toward, the timeless truths of human equality and fundamental human rights.
It is no secret that we live in trying times for our republic. Our institutions are tested anew each day—by a president who disdains them, by a public that, with good reason, distrusts them. With the increasing visibility of groups that have been denied full participation in the life of the American community, and with the daily tragedies and violence to which so many of our fellow Americans are subjected, it is tempting, at times, to dismiss this whole enterprise. When was America ever really, truly great?
But on this Independence Day, I am thinking of what my professor taught me about the power of ideas. I will remember the proud struggle to which every American is heir: the struggle to live out the truth of our founding promises. And I will remember that principles mean little if they are not practiced, and will try, in my heart, to believe that we are all equal—no one more or less important than anyone else—and that we each have a right to be here, in this fragile, beautiful place. These are only ideas, but they might just be what save us in the end.