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)