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THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
What it meant in 1776 and what it means today
The Declaration of Independence was officially signed on July 4, 1776. I often wonder whether our Founders had any sense that what they were doing would so change the world. While Thomas Paine was not one of the signers, he was definitely someone who helped inspire its content. And he said that here in these United States, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
In a very real way, they did.
America’s second president, John Adams, said he hoped that every July 4th Americans would revisit our first principles. Those words were wise, for the principles of the Declaration are America’s North Star, the pillars of our national identity. Reminding ourselves what they are on a regular basis is an act of power; when we allow them to guide us, we have done and still do amazing things. And when we ignore or neglect them, we’ve made misguided and even tragic mistakes.
The principles of the Declaration are as applicable to who we are today, and to our current national struggles, as they were in 1776. There is no better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than to revisit - and embrace - the words of The Declaration of Independence.
The “self-evident truths” elucidated in the Declaration are the following:
1) All men are created equal - whether we are black, white, brown, Jew, Muslim, Christian, gay, straight, nonbinary, transgender, conservative, progressive…
2) All men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - does a child who lives in a domestic war zone, citizens such as those in East Palestine living in environmental “sacrifice zones,” or someone having to work three jobs to put food on the table, experience the right to pursue happiness…?
3) Governments are instituted to secure those rights - given the facts I mention above, plus the fact that they are multiplied by many millions every day, how’s our government doing at that?
4) If the government isn’t doing that job, it’s the right of the people to alter it or to abolish it - I certainly don’t suggest that we abolish it…but alter it, damn straight!
That’s why I’m running.
With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the signers were risking their lives. For if the the British had won the war, all of them would have been hanged as traitors against the King of England. Their courage and contributions were extraordinary, but we cannot forgot the dark underbelly of the signing, either. For 41 of the 56 men who signed the Declaration were slaveowners.
That fact - the profoundly contradictory realities of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the reality of slavery - reflects the schism inherent in our founding. A painful gap between who we say we are, and how we sometimes behave, has defined our national struggle from the beginning. And it is our struggle even today. While the principles themselves were and are as radically democratic and enlightened as any that have ever formed the core of a nation, there have been forces in every generation who - for their own ideological or economic purposes - have had no intention whatsoever in seeing those principles manifest.
Over time, generations of Americans have worked to close that gap. When institutional realities such as slavery, the institutional oppression of women, the financial overreach of the Gilded Age, and segregation represented gross violations of the principles on which we stand, our ancestors responded with abolition, the women’s suffrage movement, the establishment of organized labor, and the civil rights movement. Allowing the principles of the Declaration of Independence to light their way, they forged a new course for our nation when we had lost our way.
Today, we have lost our way again, wandering in the darkness of entrenched economic hardship for the majority of Americans. The tentacles of corporate overreach, the spawn of trickle-down economics, now destroy the hopes and dreams of tens of millions. Due to the soulless corporate capture of our government, a lack of health care, starvation wages, the inability to find a home, lack of educational opportunity, crushing debt, mental health issues, violence on the streets, fear of looming environmental disasters, and attacks on their voting rights now stalk the lives of tens of millions of people for whom “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is at best some quaint relic of a time gone by.
No, our government has not done a bang up job.
It’s time for us to rescue the Declaration of Independence from its slide toward practical irrelevance. The greatest homage we can show our ancestors who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence is to do in our time what others have done in theirs: repudiate forces of injustice which violate its principles, reset the course of American history, and bequeath to our children the path to a more beautiful world.
If the principles of the Declaration are etched on parchment but no longer in our hearts; if the sound of their meaning is drowned out by official obfuscation; if too many generations allow ourselves to be seduced into forgetting not only the importance of those principles but also our need to protect them, then our nation will wander into a darkness from which we will not be able to return.
We need to say to each other now, “It is our turn to be brave.”
The Declaration of Independence ends with these words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Let’s do the same.