And on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, declaring: “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.”
For all the fact that the congressmen got around the sticky little problem of Black and Indigenous slavery by defining “men” as “white men,” and for all that it never crossed their minds that women might also have rights, the Declaration of Independence was an astonishingly radical document. In a world that had been dominated by a small class of rich men for so long that most people simply accepted that they should be forever tied to their status at birth, a group of upstart legislators on the edges of a continent declared that no man was born better than any other.
America was founded on the radical idea that all men are created equal.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 pledged their “Lives, [their] Fortunes and [their] sacred Honor” to defend the idea of human equality. Ever since then, Americans have sacrificed their own fortunes, honor, and even their lives, for that principle. Lincoln reminded Civil War Americans of those sacrifices when he urged the people of his era to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson written several years ago but quite relevant in 2022
On this Fourth of July, can we admit the gap between our professed ideals and the grimy, bloody reality with which we live? Only then, I think, does our observance of the holiday rise to be worthy of a free and democratic people. Without that recognition of the ideals yet to be achieved, we risk elevate military might and economic wealth to nearly-idolatrous levels of veneration.
Our founders, in 1776 and beyond, articulated a shared vision that exceeded their grasp, and we have been conceiving it anew each generation, battling over its implications again and again. Maybe that's what Jefferson meant when he wrote that "I hold a little rebellion now and then a good thing."
Our nation's aspirations are lofty and elusive; the implications are far-reaching and unprecedented. Even those who articulated them were unaware of the extent of their implications. They channeled a vision that was larger than their own:
“All men are created equal ...and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
"Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed." Declaration of Independence
"Give me liberty or give me death!' Patrick Henry
"Receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind." Tom Paine
"God has created the mind free ... No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship whatsoever ... But shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom
Less Lofty Reality
Our founders affirmed that all people are equal, but then legislated that they only meant white people. Well, actually only white men. They affirmed Liberty, declaring that they would not be slaves, while maintaining a cruel and deadly slavery over an entire race of people for generations and nearly annihilating the First Peoples who were already living here. They affirmed their role as an asylum for mankind, while opposing and constraining wave after wave of unanticipated (and, to their mind, undesirable) immigrants. They affirmed freedom of conscience in matters of belief and skepticism, while vilifying Catholics, Jews, and others (who they lumped in a make-believe category of pagans!), all the while criminalizing ways of loving outside the range of their toleration.
America was far from ideal, even according to its own ideals. But it's founding vision remains unsurpassed and it is that lofty vision which we reaffirm and celebrate:
Each individual person is properly the locus of rights, liberties, and responsibility.
Each person has equal rights and equal dignity, regardless of affiliations, gender, race, or other groupings.
Communities emerge from voluntary associations of individuals, and function through education, inspiration, and persuasion, but not through coercion or privilege.
Our national social experiment is made better by our diversity and our raucous debates. Imposed ideas and constrained speech are desperate attempts at control that only stoke the destructive smothering of chaos.
Much of our national attention must focus on correcting the historical ways that our reality fell (and falls) short of our most lofty ideals. Specifically, issues of racial bigotry towards African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities, gender bigotry against women, sexual bigotry against LGBT people, marginalization of people with special needs, of religious minorities (including atheists, Muslims, Jews and others) -- these invidious forms of discrimination and oppression flow through the past and into the present. It is not enough to sit quietly and not make things worse. Neutrality results in perpetuating injustice into a new age, so we are called to act constructively to end the inertial privileges of race, class, gender, orientation, ability, or faith.
Hope and Promise
I hoist an American flag in front of my home each July 4, and I wear a special American flag yarmulke to accentuate my commitment -- that this nation of promise and hope might yet exemplify its own articulated ideals.
As those who came before us struggled to advance inclusion, diversity and justice in their day, so we affirm the continuing promise of America not when we cling to a stale status quo, but when we engage in a continuing and revolutionary heritage, when we respond to the lure of extending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that are the rightful inheritance of every person, without exception.