The Inclusive Declaration of Independence and the Founding of America

The Fourth of July celebrates the United States of America and its birth, but with our current mood many only want to point out the country’s present and historical shortcomings. Every Fourth, I urge all to read the Declaration of Independence  (Declaration of Independence: A Transcription | National Archives), and in doing so, it is natural to focus on the multiple ironies of its most famous phrase: “all Men are created equal.” However, as we know, in eighteenth century America, women, Native Americans, and indentured servants were not seen as equal. And, of course, slaves were not equal. Any fair assessment of our history acknowledges, as Thomas E. Ricks states in First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped our Country (2020), that slavery was not a stain on this country, it was woven into the original fabric. And that weft and warp made the celebration of liberty painful to many Americans throughout our history, which was perhaps most powerfully stated by Frederic Douglass on July 5, 1852. Just as the Declaration should be regularly read, so too should this speech. (Africans in America/Part 4/Frederick Douglass speech (pbs.org.)

The Fourth of July is our birthday, however. Some might temper a child’s birthday celebration with a discussion of the child’s shortcomings, but I would hope that the major thrust of the party is, in fact, to celebrate the kid. We should be realistic in assessing our country, but there has always been much to celebrate, and the Fourth is a time of celebration. Because it is so easy to mock the Declaration’s equality statement, it is too easy to overlook the many ways that in its founding the country also furthered egalitarianism and inclusiveness.

We know many of the Declaration’s phrases—“When in the Course of human Events”; “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”; and others. But we often miss something about the tenor of the Declaration as a whole. There are no classical allusions or references. By eighteenth century standards, the language is simple. The document was not written for the elite peers of those who signed the document but for a wide swath of what were to become Americans.

Its logic demanded an inclusive appeal. The Declaration asserts that a government derives “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” not from the Divine Right of Kings. It summoned on “the Right of the People” to change government. The Declaration with these contentions could not just be addressed to an elite, aristocratic audience. It not was not directed to the enslaved, but it was seeking the approval of almost everyone else—the farmer, the joiner, the tavern owner, the schoolteacher, the sailors, the ship captain, the log splitter, and yes, the slave owner and trader. For an eighteenth-century document, its intended audience was remarkably inclusive

The notion of the consent of the governed was a radical, egalitarian break from America’s English roots, and the emerging country’s conception of “the people” was much broader than almost anywhere else in the world. This is reflected in who could vote. We now note the shortcomings of a franchise limited to propertied white males, but we seldom consider, as Jill Lepore does in These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), that a higher percentage of people could vote in the colonies than in England. The franchise was narrow by modern standards, but it was broad for its time.

Part of the reason for the inclusiveness of the Founding Era’s America was the high rate of literacy among its people, perhaps the highest of any country of its times. The seventeenth-century Pilgrims, Puritans, and others who settled here held beliefs that rejected an authoritarian church. They believed that the eternal truths came from the Bible, not from an authoritarian church, and, therefore, it was important that people could read the Holy Book. Literacy was stressed as well as the ability of each person to reason. Jefferson and the others may have expected that the Declaration would be read out to those assembled in taverns and inns, but they also knew that many people would read it for themselves, and all were expected to think and reason about the document, which led to its inclusive appeal to the people.

The Declaration did mention “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and the signers said that they had acted with “a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence,” but it did not beseech God, a god, or Jesus Christ for independence. Just as some only criticize the Declaration for its hypocrisies without recognizing its advances, some focus on the listing of God and divine providence and somehow conclude that the Declaration was an act of religious faith, or, more particularly, the signers’ Christianity. But these references, which include the almost anti-Christian formulation of “Nature’s God,” were not invocations of any particular divinity to grant them a new country. Government depended on the consent of the governed, not on divine will, and the appeal was to the people, not to some version of God. The Declaration’s wording was inclusive; it did not exclude any particular believer or any nonbeliever from its ambit. It rejected the too-often divisiveness of religion and relied on the reason of the people.

This lack of a religious appeal is not surprising. Thomas Ricks shows in First Principles that neither Christianity nor any other religious influence was prominent in the Revolutionary period. This only began to change in 1815. He reports that there was one minister for every 1500 people in 1775 America while there was one for every 500 in 1845. Scott L. Malcomson writes in One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventures of Race that in 1790 only one in ten white Americans was a member of a formal church. Jill Lepore in These Truths agrees that the country was founded in one of its most secular eras.

(concluded July 5)

Questions for the Fourth of July, or Any Day

The summer community’s Fourth of July traditions have included an ahistorical “Paul Revere” ride through the streets at daybreak; fireworks one night, a communal picnic another; and a small parade that leads to the swimming pool where people plop and populate the hills for a ceremony that has included the singing of songs; children reciting the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; the release of thirteen doves (pigeons?); an address from a community resident. All attendees pin on a badge with the year that person first came to the community. During the ceremony attendees are asked to indicate whether they have an ancestor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and a surprising number of people stand.

In anticipation of the Fourth, a community group prepared a questionnaire expecting that the tabulated results would be presented at the July celebration. It asked not only the ancestor-signing and when-did-you-come-here questions but also whether residents had met their significant others in the community; whether respondents had gone to the summer camp held annually here; and other questions of a similar sort. Since the community was founded by Philadelphia Quakers, residents were asked whether they or their ancestors were Friends. And a question asked whether community members had ancestors on the Mayflower. Although the questionnaire was written in January, it only went out last week. Many residents have responded without comment, but a few people objected that in this time of Covid-19, peaceful protests, and riots, the survey was tone deaf by focusing on a white American heritage.

I was surprised, and a bit pleased, that some questioned the questionnaire. The community prides itself as an oasis of tranquility and civility, which is frequently remarked upon. Less often do we reflect on the fact that we come from a privileged, narrow slice of society. Primarily this a community of second homes, and second homes signify affluence. Wealth is seldom overtly flaunted here, but there are no working class people. We have heads of companies, but no one who works on the factory floor. Dues are high and property prices are higher than in the surrounding area. You need more money than most people have in this country to live here.

And the community is overwhelmingly white. In my three decades here, there have always been a smattering of Asians, but the black and brown residents have never comprised more than the fingers on one hand.

I do believe that the Fourth of July should be a day to celebrate our independence, but it should be more. We should recognize that the Founders, like all humans, were flawed, and we should go beyond just a consideration of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. The day should also commemorate America, American history, and all Americans. It is a time for patriotism, but we should stress that the true patriot wants not only to protect the country but to make it better. And we should recognize that throughout our history, from colonial times until today, this country has struggled with race and class issues that have not been resolved. We are not a perfect union, and all patriotic Americans should think about how to make it better.

          Such ruminations got me thinking about questions I might like to ask of my fellow residents of this privileged, white summer community, questions that I, too, should ask of myself. For example:

Have you ever eaten dinner in the home of someone who was non-white? How often have you entertained a non-white in your home? How often have you entertained more than one non-white person or couple at the same time? What percentage of your neighbors at your primary residence would you estimate are non-white? Have you ever looked for a place to live in a neighborhood where the majority were non-whites?

How many of your neighbors are not in the top echelons of wealth? How much income do you think that it takes to lead a middle class life?

Have any of your bosses been non-white? What percentage of your co-workers at roughly your level are non-white?

Did any of your ancestors hold the opinion that Italians or Jews were not white? Were any of your ancestors concerned about the “Yellow Peril”? Did any of your ancestors oppose independence? Did your ancestors own slaves? Did any of your ancestors support abolition? Did any of your ancestors, or you, support or oppose any the civil rights movements throughout our history? Did your ancestors in this country face discrimination or racial, ethnic, or gender slurs? Have you faced discrimination or racial, ethnic, or gender slurs?

Are people less American if their ancestors were not here in 1776? Have you had a DNA test to find out more about your ancestry? Why? What reactions did you have to the results?

Have you ever taken part in a protest rally? How often and what for? How often have you been arrested? How often have you had in an encounter with the police where you felt afraid? How often have the police injured you? Have you ever been stopped and frisked? Have you ever been tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed? Have you ever been followed around in a store by security personnel?

What was your reaction when the Black Lives Matter movement emerged? Did you object when Colin Kaepernick and other athletes “took a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem?

Do you have ideas about how to bring more non-whites into this community? How do you think your neighbors would react if there were more non-whites here?

Do or did your children go to public schools, religious schools, or private schools? How many of their classmates are non-white? How many are in the lower half of income. What kind of schools did you go to?

Do you have any relatives in law enforcement? How would you feel if a child of yours said they wanted to be a police officer?

And a question that I feel I should regularly confront: In what ways would you say you are most hypocritical about race, class, and law enforcement issues?

It’s the Fourth. Celebrate Lincoln, Too

John Adams predicted that the fireworks and other hullaballoo would be held annually on the second day of July, for it was July 2, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Lee Resolution for independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. John was close, but give him no cigar. (Did the founding fathers smoke cigars or only pipes?) We, of course, instead celebrate the Fourth of July, which this year lands on July 4. July 4, 1776, was not the date on which the thirteen colonies declared independence; it was, however, the date when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

The Declaration now plays a frequent role in our Fourth of July celebrations, but that was not true in the eighteenth century. The act of independence was considered important, but not so much the document that proclaimed it.

In the early nineteenth century, the Declaration of Independence produced controversies. Slavery was at the core of the disputes. At issue was the Declaration’s most famous passage: “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.” The apparent hypocrisy of that pronouncement in a slaveholding country was almost immediately pointed out by the British.

Abolitionists in the nineteenth century maintained, against much evidence, that the Founding Fathers had been opposed to slavery in principle. Those who supported the extension of slavery into American territories argued that the Declaration was irrelevant because it was not the Constitution. Moreover, they maintained that the assertion “all men are created equal” was false, that it was not a self-evident truth, but a “self-evident lie.”

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Stephen Douglas maintained that the Declaration referred only to white men. Abraham Lincoln said that the Declaration did not “declare men equal in all respects. . . . They defined with tolerable distinctness in         what they did consider all men created equal—equal in ‘certain inalienable (sic) rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had not power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society which should be familiar to all, constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

 

Whether historically correct or not, Lincoln’s view of the Declaration became widely accepted. He further cemented that reading with the Gettysburg address’s opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” When I learned what a score was and subtracted eighty-seven from 1863, I realized that he was referring not to our Constitution, which does not contain a broad statement of equality, but to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration had been seen by many as a dead instrument that had accomplished its purpose—separation from England. Lincoln, however, saw it as still living in all ages providing a goal for which we should always be striving.

On the Fourth of July we should honor Thomas Jefferson and the others who signed the document, but we should also honor Lincoln for reviving the Declaration of Independence so that it remains relevant today and tomorrow as an expression of what should be best about America.