Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence; A Statement of Aspirations for the Nation's Future
On July 4th we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the document that explains the reasons for our break with England to establish a new nation in North America. In writing the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson also sought to unite the colonies around some basic tenets that would guide the founding of this new nation, principles that would ensure that America was better, more just, more free, than the monarchies of Europe.
Jefferson's points, borrowed from English philosopher John Locke, were that all men were created equal and had the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The government's job was to protect and nurture those rights.
“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.”
In teaching students about the Declaration of Independence, I'm often faced with explaining the hypocrisy of the document regarding liberty and equality. Clearly not everyone was free or equal in 1776. Jefferson was an unrepentant slave owner, as were other founders. Native Americans were treated unconscionably and women were little more than chattel.
So, how do you explain such contradictions to students, the divergence of the language from the reality of 18th century America? Many conservatives would prefer that we teach our high school and college students a "patriotic" version of history, a euphemism for glossing over the warts to focus on the heroics of our founders. Their point is that the reality undermines the nation's cohesion and the myth of American "exceptionalism."
The problem with teaching a "patriotic history," of the nation's founding isn't just that it's dishonest, it's that it entirely misses the point of what the founders created. Jefferson, along with Paine, Madison, Franklin, and others were children of the "enlightenment," and envisaged a future driven by ideas that would allow us to escape our past. They created a nation, and eventually a Constitution, that would evolve with advances in human learning. They understood that 1776 was just the beginning of a process and that our laws, like science, would continue to advance.
So, on the 4th of July, we don't celebrate Jefferson's America, we celebrate what Jefferson's words have come to mean to succeeding generations of Americans. The Declaration of Independence's enduring legacy is not what it meant to the founders in 1776, but how it continues to inspire us to remake America today.
Have a wonderful 4th!
By: Don Lam, My Students & Friends