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Aspirations of The Declaration of Independence

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Alexander Tsesis is the author of For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence (Oxford University Press)

Independence Day has always been a time for reflection in the United States. The opportunity for the nation to collectively consider whether it has lived up to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The collective process of gathering our thoughts is not new. John Adams, who would later become the second President of the United States, foresaw generations celebrating independence. When he was still a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776, he wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, foreseeing that the anniversary of the nation's birth would be "commemorated as the Day of Deliverance." Its memory, he went on to predict, would be enjoyed with great "pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forever!" From this remarkably farseeing comment, one gets the sense that Fourth of July events link us to the past. But it is not merely a bridge into the days of old that we transverse as we watch the march of parades and illumination of fireworks. It is also a time for reflection on the nation's founding principles.

Revolutionaries committed the government to protecting fundamental rights. They determined to end monarchy in this country, believing it to be incompatible with statements on the public good enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, especially those found in its second paragraph. The radical claim of the Declaration of Independence that human rights are innate to all people, rather than privileges granted by rulers, lit a fire that helped erase aristocracy and to replace it with representative governance. "Human nature," as another signer of the Declaration, Dr. Benjamin Rush, said, "is the same in all ages and countries."

For Rush and most other politicians of his generation that meant that there are inborn characteristics that are inalienable regardless of a person's level of education, social and political station, or religious affiliation. The belief that everyone is entitled to fair treatment also has direct effects on the role of government. The Declaration of Independence rendered the protection of human rights an essential aspect of governance, but pragmatic domestic and foreign considerations counterbalanced those ideals with policymaking tradeoffs.

While these were grand hopes for the future, they were stated when slavery was widespread, women were unable to vote, neither were most men without property permitted to take part in elections. Inequality was common in a nation that told the world, "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 nation's maturation-be it through the ending of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, or the equal share of voting in congressional districts-has involved trying to fulfill the Declaration's bold statements.

One of the great features of the Declaration of Independence, is that it stated the equal right to justice in terms that were well ahead of its time. As a result, social groups searching for a slender reed of hope turned to the document's inspirational words. Abolitionists contrasted the workings of the system of slavery and racial injustice from the country's stated purposes. William Lloyd Garrison, for instance, mocked slaveholders and their supporters for hypocritically "ringing of bells [and] the kindling of bonfires" on the Fourth of July to celebrate the "'self-evident truths' of the Declaration of Independence." At a time when slavery spread Westward through various nineteenth century compromises, the statement of national purpose indicted the country for its inhuman treatment of African Americans.

Women suffragists also turned to the American manifesto to contrast its promises of representative government with the exclusion of half the adult population from voting rolls. The Senaca Falls Convention of 1848, which published one of the most important documents on gender equality, modified the Declaration's initial words to: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." By the Declaration of Sentiments, Convention participants uncompromisingly asserted "that woman is man's equal." While facts on the ground were very different, its powerful interpretation of national ideals gave millions of people hope until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment officially prohibited sex discrimination in voting.

Today as we gather with family and friends in parks, meadows, swimming pools, and ballparks around the country, that ancient document continues to tug at our heartstrings. The Declaration of Independence remains a symbol of national aspiration and an indictment for its shortcomings.

As it did in the past, the Declaration of Independence, can help us gain strength as a people, erasing some of the partisan lines that separate us. Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democratic Representative Steny H. Hoyer realized this in 1990 when they stood together to support the Americans with Disabilities Act; both of them in speeches connecting its purposes to the Declaration of Independence.

In this election year, we face issues as diverse as immigration rights, gay marriage, felon disenfranchisement, freedom of conscience, disability rights, antipoverty programs, and humanitarian laws. As different as they are in substance, they can each be informed by that brief, aspirational statement of the founding generation. We will, no doubt, come up with different solutions for all of these topics, but at least we will have a common frame of reference to contain our views within ideals that we all recognize. Such a frame of reference can help us make political dialogue more civil.