Every American over 18 should read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution annually. It's not enough to have read the nation's most sacred documents in high school, memorize a portion of the preamble or know that somewhere in the document that outlines America's intention to break free from British occupation the words "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are embedded.
Everyone should be familiar with the unedited version of the Declaration of Independence for it illustrates the struggle the Founders had with the original sin of slavery.
In articulating their grievances against King George III, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."
The aforementioned paragraph cannot be found in the final draft that was ratified on July 4, 1776.
Moreover, Americans should familiarize themselves with the context for what was written in both documents. Instead of deifying the Founders as a cabal of learned men who resided just north of perfection, let us see them as they were -- uncertain, divided, quarrelsome and a visionary lot who were willing to pledge the lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to something that would be known as the American experiment.
America is unique in that it was founded on an idea -- equality. But that idea, unprecedented at the time, would also come with asterisk that was outlined in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, where those who toiled under a forced immigration policy would be counted as three-fifths of a person for census purposes.
And down in Article 4, Section 2 it systematically insured that those in bondage who sought the fruits of liberation, if captured, would be remanded to their owner.
Perhaps the most important reason for reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is in keeping with Founders wishes.
It was to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity, that the Founders ordained and established the Constitution.
But should that be taken literally today? If so, the implication, though not expressly stated in the Constitution, was for the benefit of white male landowners.
But Jefferson wrote in 1824: "I willingly acquiesce in the institutions of my country, perfect or imperfect, and think it a duty to leave their modifications to those who are to live under them and are to participate of the good or evil they may produce. The present generation has the same right of self-government which the past one has exercised for itself."
Do we want to confine our 21st century understanding of our most cherished documents to the limited parameters of an 18th century worldview? To do so would be to shirk our responsibilities as American citizens, leaving it to a group of men unable to conceive the Civil War let alone the atomic bomb.
Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote:
"There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed."
Rush's words reflect the ongoing challenge of the American experiment. The revolution was not the war but the first act to sustain the radical idea of equality.
Committing to annual readings does not insure uniformity of thought, nor should it, but it does at least offer a common starting point.
In 1861, when leaving the Senate, Jefferson Davis said that "all men are created equal" did not mean everyone. But 102 years later, reading the same document, Martin Luther King offered the opposite interpretation.
Don't we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to review these documents annually? They hold the key that unlocks our past, navigates our present and provides insight to our future?
The Declaration of Independence is our mission statement and the Constitution is our guide. Taken together is what puts us on the path toward a "more perfect union"
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