Next week, we'll be celebrating the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The eloquent cries for freedom and equality voiced in that properly revered document have become what professors Sid Milkis and Marc Landy call the "American Creed." It's a belief that all of us have the right to do whatever we want with our lives so long as we don't interfere with the right of others to do the same.
At its best, the Declaration has been used to challenge the nation to become better, to live up to its founding ideals.
That was certainly the case on July 4, 1852, when an escaped slave eloquently pointed out the contradiction between America's founding embrace of freedom and its ongoing practice of slavery. "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" asked Frederick Douglass. He answered that it was "a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim."
As millions of white Americans celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass called the celebration a "sham" filled with "fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy." How could slavery exist in a land founded on the premise that all of us are created equal? What about the unalienable rights of black Americans to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness?
Douglass, of course, was right. The contradiction between what America preached and what it practiced was inexcusable.
Those seeking to defend slavery did not deny the contradiction; they simply wanted to forget about the Declaration and all talk of equality. John C. Calhoun, perhaps the most powerful and influential defender of slavery, complained mightily that the ideals of the Declaration had "spread far and wide, and fixed itself deeply into the public mind."
When residents in Calhoun's home state fired upon Fort Sumter to start the Civil War, they were fighting both to defend slavery and to overturn the Declaration of Independence. President Abraham Lincoln pointedly defended the Declaration and described America as having been "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
When the South lost the Civil War, new opposition arose to the nation's founding ideals. Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were OK with the idea of equality, but they hated the idea of individual rights that limited the power of government. Sounding a lot like Calhoun, President Woodrow Wilson complained that the American people had never gotten over the Declaration.
Both the segregationists and the progressives saw the Declaration of Independence as an impediment to their plans. They wanted governments to have more power. In the case of the slaveholders, they wanted state governments to have the right to impose slavery or Jim Crow laws on black residents of their state. The progressives wanted the federal government to have the right to aggressively lead society and control the economy.
But, states don't have rights. People have rights.
When America is at our best, we remember that.
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