It is true that these words were often honored in their breach in the nation’s early years. Black people were enslaved in much of the land and were often unable to vote, even when free. Women were denied the right to vote or own property in their name, if married, for much of the 19th century. Discrimination against religious minorities, such as Catholics and Jews, and against racial minorities such as Asians, was widespread. Native Americans were systematically pushed out of their land and largely confined to reservations against their will. It’s not surprising that these facts have led some to allege that America’s foundational principle was the supremacy of white, Protestant, property-owning men.
If that were true, though, our history would have been much different. The record of other nations is proof that ruling classes or groups rarely give up their status and privileges peacefully. The history of modern revolutions, from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Arab Spring, shows this clearly. Other than the violent struggle to end slavery, that has not been the case in the United States. Time and again Americans have liberalized themselves, extending the franchise, as well as economic and civil rights, to supposedly inferior groups. From expanding voting to all white men in the early 19th century to today’s extension of civil rights to LGBTQ people, the United States has regularly interpreted its national promise so that it applies more broadly in fact as well as in idea.
This record of peaceful, yet radical, social change is rooted in the Declaration’s promise. At every step, an advocate for change could point to those words and ask how they did not apply to them. “All men” has always meant “all human beings,” and inconsistencies between that principle and the reality of American life have always been ultimately resolved in favor of finding a common humanity that unites us all. The struggle clearly took longer in some cases than in others, and in the case of slavery took a Civil War to resolve. But the Declaration’s promise is America’s unalienable heritage, and so once a die is cast, the outcome — greater equality and freedom in fact for all — has already been written.
Today’s disputes over racial equality are simply the latest battleground in this more-than-two-century effort to make Jefferson’s words real. When most people say “black lives matter,” it is because they, following the Declaration, believe that all lives matter, and they recognize that for too long that idea has too often not been realized. In this, we are following Martin Luther King Jr., who drew inspiration from the Declaration as he worked tirelessly to persuade white America to grant black people the equal recognition of their common humanity that is every person’s natural birthright.
Most people understand this history, but not all. There are those who see America as unredeemable — a fatally flawed country built on stolen land and constructed by slave labor. This view grants no essential difference between an Abraham Lincoln who attacked slavery as immoral and a John C. Calhoun who defended slavery as beneficial. They tear down statues to national heroes because they are deeply conflicted about our national story.
Revolutionary movements that seek to re-found a nation from the ground up always end in misery. The French Revolution that killed a king, destroyed churches and even remade the calendar ended in the Reign of Terror. Nazism gave us the Holocaust, and the 20th century’s Communist revolutions gave us Soviet mass murder, the Chinese Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the death of one-quarter of all Cambodians by the wretched Pol Pot. That level of destruction won’t happen here, as it’s safe to say Americans will fiercely resist any serious attempt to uproot our traditions and throw them on a bonfire of vanities.
The Declaration’s principles have spoken to so many regardless of time and distance because they are universal, timeless and true. Our current crisis gives us an opportunity this Fourth of July weekend to reflect on the wondrous inheritance we have received. May we choose to rededicate ourselves and our nation to the simple but profound insight that “all men are created equal.”