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Independence Day and the Paradox of the Declaration
Today is Independence Day, a holiday that provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the historical complexities of the American Revolution and its legacy.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence, announcing to the world that the American colonies were free and independent from the British crown. Their claim was predicated on the Enlightenment ideals of natural rights and the social contract. “All men are created equal,” the Declaration asserted; and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Under the social contract, governments existed to protect these natural rights, and when it failed to do so, it was the “Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
The radicalism of the Declaration’s higher-law principles, however, was tempered by its limited application. About 500,000 African Americans lived in the colonies at time of the Revolution, and 90 percent of them were enslaved, representing 20 percent of the colonial population. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 41 were enslavers. Thomas Jefferson, the document’s principal author, enslaved nearly 200 people at the time of the writing, and more than 600 in his adult life.
During the Revolutionary era, white women enjoyed only some of the benefits of liberty and were excluded from participation in the social contract. They were entrusted only with the role of Republican Motherhood by indoctrinating their sons into republican ideology at home. Women were not granted suffrage or agency in the political sphere in any state (with the exception of New Jersey before a loophole was quickly closed).
While acknowledging limited immediate application and the paradox of the Declaration, we must also recognize the enduring power of the words and ideals expressed within it. Throughout history, the Declaration has served as a catalyst for movements seeking justice, equality, and human rights.
The gradual abolition of slavery in the North began during the American Revolution. Pennsylvania began gradual emancipation in 1780, followed in the years thereafter by abolition in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory. New York abolished slavery in 1799 and New Jersey followed in 1804.
At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women drafted the Declaration of Sentiments: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." This document echoed the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and became a cornerstone of the long fight for women's suffrage that culminated in the 19th Amendment in 1920.
In 1854, abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed, “I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, ‘that all men are created equal. . .’ Hence, I am an abolitionist. . . . Convince me that one man may rightfully make another man his slave, and I will no longer subscribe to the Declaration of Independence.”
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the principles of the Declaration in his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington: “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 a 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. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
As we celebrate Independence Day, let us continue the work of shaping a society that lives up to the lofty ideals set forth in our nation's creed.