To be sure, every
Independence Day ought to be an exercise in memory, and a recommitment to America's
fundamental ideals that the Declaration of Independence proclaims to be
And to be
sure as well, on the day of the Declaration's adoption on July 4, 1776, when the
Founders signed the parchment proclaiming "all Men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," many
of those signing were slaveholders, including Thomas Jefferson, the
Declaration's principal drafter.
course, there was a glaring gap on that July day between the reality of life in
America with regard to race and the ideal of equality embodied in the
Declaration of Independence.
This year, as
we celebrate Independence Day, I suspect, in light of what has occurred in the
aftermath of George Floyd's death, that many Americans will think somewhat more
deeply about the meaning of the Declaration's affirmation that all men are
created equal. It is undeniable that a part of our American story has been
stained by racial oppression. But it is also undeniable that an important part
of our story includes an ongoing struggle to overcome such oppression.
propositions are true. We can be ashamed of one, and proud of the other. And we
can draw inspiration for coming together as Americans if we embrace the ideals
expressed in the Declaration, notwithstanding the fact that its principal
author held men in bondage in contravention of those ideals.
to mindlessly, and at times lawlessly, tear down statues and deface memorials,
including those dedicated even to the memories of Jefferson and Lincoln, is
wrong. In seeking to erase or "cancel" from our collective memory those
parts of our American story that constitute grievous wrongs, there is a real risk
that historical signposts and markers that ought to be engrained in our
collective memory as timeless guideposts will be sacrificed as well.
So it is with
the Declaration of Independence.
16, 1854, Abraham Lincoln delivered a famous speech in Peoria, Illinois,
arguing against the extension of slavery permitted by the Kansas–Nebraska Act
passed by Congress earlier in the year. Lincoln was out of politics at the
time, but many credit his Peoria anti-slavery speech with the beginning of his
preparation for his subsequent presidential campaign.
Lincoln grounded his argument against the extension of slavery, and later in
arguing for its abolition, squarely on the words of the Declaration:
man is good enough to govern another man, without the other's consent. I say
this is the leading principle – the sheet anchor of American republicanism. Our
Declaration of Independence says:
'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.'
I have quoted so much at
this time merely to show that according to our ancient faith, the just powers
of government are derived from the consent of the governed. Now the relation of
masters and slaves is, PRO TANTO, a total violation of this principle. The
master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a
set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself.
Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that
only is self-government." [Capitalization in the original]
Invoking the Declaration's
equality precept over and over again, Lincoln pleaded: "Let us re-adopt
the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policies,
which harmonize with it."
Frederick Douglass was the
principal speaker at the dedication on April 14, 1876, of the memorial, now
known as the Emancipation Memorial, in Lincoln Park, in Washington, DC. A
plaque on the monument, which was funded by donations from emancipated slaves,
reads: "Freedom's Memorial in grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln."
In his dedication oration,
Douglass readily acknowledged Lincoln's complexities, including many of his
statements that displayed a racial bias. But he also acknowledged this about
Lincoln: "Though the union was more to him than our freedom or our future,
under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the
depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood."
And this from Martin Luther
King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on August 28, 1963,
on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is worth remembering:
"When the architects of
our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every
American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black
men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Fourth of July is a time
to celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the self-evident Truths
"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 these words were written by a flawed man – and
who among us is not? – does not mean that they nevertheless should not inspire
us today, as Lincoln put it, to be touched by "the better angels of our
Best wishes for a safe,
healthy, joyous, and meaningful Independence Day!
PS – My previous Independence Day messages are
here: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018,