America’s birth certificate
A few years ago, while speaking at a Tea Party rally, Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner mistakenly attributed the opening words of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution.
Boehner’s error, while surprising to some, was not particularly unusual considering the confusion of many Americans when asked to distinguish the difference between our two famous charters of freedom.
Early in the last century, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Vernon L. Parrington concisely explained the difference: “Their unlikeness is unmistakable: the one a classic statement of humanitarian democracy, the other an organic law designed to safeguard the minority under republican law.”
Parrington’s explanation is worth pondering as citizens prepare for their Fourth of July weekend activities.
Americans might also take a moment to remember the profound significance of the occasion, especially the document associated with this patriotic celebration.
What the founders did in 1776 went beyond declaring independence from Great Britain and establishing principles to justify the creation of a new nation.
According to historian Henry Steele Commager, revolutionary leader John Adams was correct in pointing out that “they realized the theories of the wisest writers.” Commager argues that these theoretical ideas were actualized, legalized and institutionalized.
“That was, and remains, the supreme achievement of the American Revolution; indeed in the longer perspective, that was the American Revolution,” Commager wrote.
The most moving and memorable passage of the Declaration of Independence contains the inspiring natural rights philosophy which expresses the basic idealism underlying our democracy.
In the next century, this was the section of Jefferson’s masterpiece that prompted Abraham Lincoln to cite the document as his political guiding star. As our 16th president emphatically stated in 1861, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
Lincoln added that “America was founded on a proposition, and Jefferson wrote it.”
The affinity of Lincoln for the penman of the American Revolution is perhaps best expressed by historian Garry Wills’ belief that “Jefferson and Lincoln are the twinned saints of our politics.”
Lincoln’s reverence for the Declaration of Independence was practically unbounded, and his conception of the document was that its maxims would be applied more extensively over time “as circumstances should permit.”
Several commentators have observed that first few dozen words, beginning with “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” introducing the second paragraph of America’s birth certificate, are often described as the most famous in our history.
All the great democratic and liberal reform movements of the previous two centuries have drawn their philosophical justification from the words of the Declaration of Independence. These include the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, popular education, labor laws, civil rights and equal rights for women.
The impact of Jefferson’s idealistic doctrine also had a global effect as well by inspiring revolutionary movements around the word.
Political upheavals occurring in the early 19th century in Spain, Portugal, Greece, parts of Italy and in much of Latin America prompted Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay to claim these revolutions “adopt our principles, copy our institutions and, in many instances, employ the very language of our revolutionary papers.”
As recently as 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam, using a declaration modeled after Jefferson’s timeless principles.
Even closer to our own time, the words of this document were used by protestors during the 2005 Tianamen Square uprising in China.
The history of American democracy has been a gradual realization of the fulfillment and promise of the Declaration of Independence. Historian Joseph J. Ellis has remarked that the Declaration is a living document and its full meaning has slowly evolved over time.
In her award-winning book, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” scholar Pauline Maier elaborates more extensively on Ellis’ observation: “The vitality of the Declaration of Independence rests on the readiness of the people and their leaders to discuss its implications and to make the crooked ways straight, not in the mummified paper curiosity lying in state at the National Archives; in the ritual of politics, not in the worship of false gods who are at odds with our eighteenth-century origins and war against our capacity, together, to define and realize right and justice in our time.”
Jefferson was aware of the unfinished nature of the revolution and the obligation of later generations to not only preserve the heritage of freedom but to extend its promise for posterity.
The Declaration’s author also knew that his famous labor of love would assure him a prominent place in the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes.
During a political career of over four decades, Jefferson served as president of the United States, secretary of state, author of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, governor of Virginia and founder of the University of Virginia.
Of all these achievements, there was only one other that gave him more pride.
Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Just a short time before dying, he made it known that he considered the Declaration of Independence his greatest legacy to the nation and requested it be inscribed first on his memorial obelisk.
Bruce Dudley lives in McColloms and Camden, Del.
Commager, Henry Steele, “The Declaration of Independence,” in “Thomas Jefferson: The Man, His World, His Influence,” ed. Lally Weymouth
Ellis, Joseph J., “What the Declaration Declared,” audio lecture
Kenyon, Cecilia, “The Declaration of Independence,” in “Fundamental Testaments of the American Revolution,” ed. Julian Boyd
Maier, Pauline, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence”
Parrington, Vernon L., “Main Currents of American Thought”
Slauter, Eric, “The Declaration of Independence and the New Nation”
Wills, Garry, “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence”