Here comes the Fourth of July, number 236 since the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and riders on horseback rushed it to the far corners of the thirteen new United States -- where it was read aloud to cheering crowds. These days our celebration of the Fourth brings a welcome round of barbecue, camaraderie with friends and family, fireworks, flags, and unbeatable prices at the mall.
But perhaps, too, we will remember the Declaration of Independence itself, the product of what John Adams called Thomas Jefferson's "happy talent for composition." Take some time this week to read it alone, to yourself, or aloud with others, and tell me the words aren't still capable of setting the mind ablaze. The founders surely knew that when they let these ideas loose in the world, they could never again be caged.
Yet from the beginning, these sentiments were also a thorn in our side, a reminder of the new nation's divided soul. Opponents, who still sided with Britain, greeted it with sarcasm. How can you declare "All men are created equal," without freeing your slaves?
Jefferson himself was an aristocrat whose inheritance of 5,000 acres, and the slaves to work it, mocked his eloquent notion of equality. He acknowledged that slavery degraded master and slave alike, but would not give his own slaves their freedom. Their labor kept him financially afloat. Hundreds of slaves, forced like beasts of burden to toil from sunrise to sunset under threat of the lash, enabled him to thrive as a privileged gentleman, to pursue his intellectual interests, and to rise in politics.
Even the children born to him by the slave Sally Hemings remained slaves, as did their mother. Only an obscure provision in his will released his children after his death. All the others -- scores of slaves -- were sold to pay off his debts.
Yes, Thomas Jefferson possessed "a happy talent for composition," but he employed it for cross purposes. Whatever he was thinking when he wrote "all men are created equal," he also believed black people were inferior to white people. Inferior, he wrote, "to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." To read his argument today is to enter the pathology of white superiority that attended the birth of our nation.
So forcefully did he state the case, and so great was his standing among the slave-holding class, that after his death the black abolitionist David Walker would claim Jefferson's argument had "injured us more, and has been as great a barrier to our emancipation as any thing that has ever been advanced against us," for it had "... sunk deep into the hearts of millions of the whites, and never will be removed this side of eternity."
So, the ideal of equality Jefferson proclaimed, he also betrayed. He got it right when he wrote about "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as the core of our human aspirations. But he lived it wrong, denying to others the rights he claimed for himself. And that's how Jefferson came to embody the oldest and longest war of all -- the war between the self and the truth, between what we know and how we live.
So enjoy the fireworks and flags, the barbecues and bargain sales. But hold this thought as well: that behind this Fourth of July holiday are human beings who were as flawed and conflicted as they were inspired. If they were to look upon us today, they most likely would think as they did then, how much remains to be done.
Follow Bill Moyers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BillMoyers