244 years ago today, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and announced to the world that the American colonies would separate from the global superpower of Great Britain. In signing this document (on August 2nd, actually), these 56 Founding Fathers risked their lives, livelihoods, and reputations by officially dedicating themselves to this revolutionary movement.
These men, of course, were far from perfect and had many serious faults. Namely, despite dedicating themselves to the proposition “that all men are created equal,” about 41 of the signers claimed enslaved Black people as property. Yet today, we still honor the groundbreaking actions of these men - not because of their personal flaws and unacceptable actions, but in spite of them. Though the signers may not have recognized it at the time, the principles of the Declaration would provide the groundwork for abolishing slavery and recognizing the humanity and inalienable rights of enslaved persons across the country.
At the Republican Party’s first national convention in 1856, delegates endorsed a platform which specifically invoked the words of the Declaration of Independence when calling for slavery to be abolished in all federal territories. The fledgling political party saw great electoral success just four years later, electing Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and gaining control of both houses of Congress. After the nation endured civil war, many of these leaders would ultimately help abolish slavery entirely through ratification of the 13th Amendment. So while some signers of the Declaration engaged in what we now know to be detestable behaviors in their own lives, we can also see that their bold action in 1776 directly inspired the nation’s progression in attempting to protect the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.
Today, when we examine the recent events in our American society, it is quite easy to only pay attention to the glaring flaws and failures around us. We have been unable to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, with recent reports of over 50,000 new confirmed cases per day showing that the outbreak is worse in America than it has ever been. We have seen inexplicable instances of racism, violence, and discrimination across the nation on our TV screens. And we are currently embarking on a nationwide evaluation of systemic inequality, reckoning with the ugliest parts of our American history.
For some, in these dark days, it may seem incredibly difficult to be jubilant and celebrate our nation on Independence Day. In fact, I’ve seen a surprisingly large number of my friends and classmates suggesting to their followers on social media that nobody should celebrate the United States this Fourth of July. But in my opinion, that’s exactly the wrong message to send at this critical moment in time. Now, more than ever, we must celebrate our founding principles and rededicate ourselves to those revolutionary ideas. We must commit to speaking out against injustice, just as the Founders did, and fighting to ensure that equal justice under the law is a reality for all Americans.
In a famous speech about the Fourth of July in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke passionately about the lessons which could be learned from the signers of the Declaration of Independence and their “great deeds.” Even in the midst of troubling times, when the nation teetered on the brink of civil war and millions of African Americans remained enslaved, Douglass believed that Americans could draw inspiration from the words of the Founders. While the nation had strayed from the path of righteousness greatly, the United States could get back on the right track by embracing its founding ideals and protecting the rights of all of its inhabitants.
The words and actions of the signers of the Declaration of Independence not only allowed their band of revolutionaries to succeed in extricating themselves from British rule, but also inspired future generations of Americans to fight for what they knew to be right. If we embrace our founding principles, not only will our current national moment of reckoning result in meaningful, positive reform in the short term, but our ultimate success over these present struggles will also inspire us and future Americans to strive for a more just, equitable, and prosperous future.
While many of us, myself included, may firmly believe that our nation remains the greatest on the face of the Earth, let us be under no illusion that we are perfect. Rather, let us draw upon the vision of our American “mission statement” - the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. We seek to create a “more perfect union,” meaning that the process of fully realizing the ideals of the Declaration is ongoing and open-ended.
Join me this Independence Day in celebrating the principles of the Declaration of Independence, so that, on July 5th, we may emerge unified and work together on our perpetual American journey of crafting a more perfect union that lives up to our nation’s founding ideals.
Have a happy Fourth of July and remember to be safe, wear a mask, and practice social distancing!