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.