Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence.
We celebrate America’s independence from Great Britain on this 241st anniversary of the adoption of the declaration by the Second Continental Congress.
However, like the Constitution, the meaning of the declaration has changed a lot over the years since it was adopted.
Thomas Jefferson wrote most of the piece and the influence of philosopher John Locke is interwoven into the ideology and phraseology of the document.
When Jefferson wrote, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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 meaning was very different than it is today.
Consider that when Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” he didn’t mean the slaves he owned. He also didn’t mean the women he knew. He didn’t even mean the white men he knew that weren’t wealthy enough to own property. Don’t think for a second that equality stretched out to the Native Americans who used to think the land which Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress were liberating from England was actually their land.
It would be almost a century before slaves of African origins were freed and another century before they had real semblance of civil rights.
It would be almost 150 years before women were allowed to vote.
Most people with any education at all know the preamble to the Declaration of Independence but few realize how long the list of grievances against the colonies’ oppressors was. Standing before the original document in the National Archives, you can still see the faded words and the signatures, especially that of John Hancock who took up more real estate on the document than the other 55 other co-signers.
Light and time have faded the ink on the original document just as light and time have faded the original meaning of equality from the meaning Jefferson attached to the phrase, making way for the current definition granted by the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments.
We love to idealize the founders of this country but we do them and ourselves a disservice when we try to make them more than very intelligent and conscientious men of their era. They owned slaves. They thought less of indigenous people. They subjugated women.
They were ahead of their time but they were centuries behind today’s times. We need to keep that in perspective so that we can remember as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We need to honor the free country the Declaration of Independence initiated. We should also honor those who fought to expand the freedoms the government the founders created granted to early Americans and helped us become the truly free nation we are today.
Beyond that, we need to fight to preserve and expand those freedoms until we really live in a society where all men are created and treated as equals.
We have come a long way, but we still have work to do.
— Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.