Why the Declaration of Independence—and July 4th—Still Matter

On July 4, 1965, a Southern preacher delivered an important sermon in his home church in Atlanta. The church was Ebenezer Baptist. The man was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. On that day, King dedicated a part of his sermon to a paragraph in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Unlike many critical race theorists and progressive activists and historians, King did not attack Jefferson's words, or Jefferson himself and his human shortcomings.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," King began.

King then drilled down on the words he'd read. "This is a dream," King said, describing the significance of those words. "It's a great dream. The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn't say 'some men'; it says 'all men.' It doesn't say 'all white men'; it says 'all men,' which includes black men. It does not say 'all Gentiles'; it says 'all men,' which includes Jews. It doesn't say 'all Protestants'; it says 'all men,' which includes Catholics. It doesn't even say 'all theists and believers'; it says 'all men,' which includes humanists and agnostics."

King wasn't finished. "Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us—and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day—that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth."

An original copy of the Declaration of Independence. Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage

Only a few years before, on July 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia about our nation's founding that echoed King's sentiments. The Declaration was more than a mere document, Kennedy explained: It was—and will always be—a part of our divine inheritance.

"You and I are the executives of the testament handed down by those who gathered in this historic hall 186 years ago today," he began. "For they gathered to affix their names to a document which was, above all else, a document not of rhetoric but of bold decision.

"It was, it is true, a document of protest, but protests had been made before. It set forth the grievances with eloquence, but such eloquence had been heard before. But what distinguished this paper from all the others was the final irrevocable decision that it took to assert the independence of free states in place of colonies, and to commit to that goal their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."

Kennedy wasn't finished.

"Today, 186 years later, that declaration, whose yellowing parchment and fading, almost illegible lines I saw in the past week in the National Archives in Washington, is still a revolutionary document. To read it today is to hear a trumpet call, for that declaration unleashed not merely a revolution against the British but a revolution in human affairs."

Kennedy, who was at the time battling an enemy of human freedom called the Soviet Union, closed out his speech with these words. "If there is a single issue which divides the world, it is independence. The independence of Berlin or Laos or Vietnam, the longing for independence behind the Iron Curtain, the peaceful transition to independence in those newly emerging areas whose troubles some hope to exploit," he said.

"The theory of independence is as old as man himself, and it was not invented in this hall," Kennedy continued. "But it was in this hall that the theory became a practice, that the word went out to all, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, 'that the God who gave us life gave us Liberty at the same time.'"

Nearly 100 years before Kennedy visited Independence Hall, the very same words of Jefferson sparked the imagination of another American leader. In a remarkable book by Ted Widmer called Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, we learn that the Declaration of Independence animated much of President Abraham Lincoln's thinking in his run for the presidency.

"Throughout the 1850's," Widmer writes, "Lincoln hammered away at the Declaration, like a blacksmith seeking what is valuable in an ingot and disregarding the rest." The key word for Lincoln—just one word—was embedded in Jefferson's most famous line: the word all in "all men are created equal."

"It creates no equivocation," Widmer explained. "On that small anvil, Lincoln had forged his career."

On his epic and dangerous trip from Springfield, Illinois, to his new home in Washington, D.C., to begin serving as the nation's 16th president, Lincoln made stops along the way to rally the nation around the Declaration of Independence—and that one word. Perhaps the most notable stop was Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

He expressed to the audience his "deep emotion" at standing in the place where the country he loved came into existence, Widmer noted. Then came this remarkable personal testimony by the nation's new leader. "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence," Lincoln declared. Those words, Widmer wrote, brought the house down. He would go on to mention the word all two more times in the short speech, adding that there was something in the essence of the Declaration itself that gave "hope to the world for all future time."

Widmer went on to explain the significance of that speech at Independence Hall. "With this electrifying performance, condensed into a minute or two, Lincoln had reset America's moral compass," Widmer wrote. "Like a mechanic looking for the hidden spring that operates a mechanism, he had found his way to the source of his country's greatness. It had always been hiding in plain view, inside one of the Declaration's smallest words."

It is not very difficult to trace the explosion of human freedom around the world to the decade in which the Declaration of Independence was signed. As historian Katie Kelaidis pointed out in an essay at Quillette.com, "Tribalism and slavery are as old as humanity," and "the very first human records are records of human bondage." She said that "while slavery is as old as humanity, abolitionism is a relatively recent phenomenon."

One look at a graph below on the abolition of slavery around the world makes clear that something happened in the mid-1770s that gave birth to this revolution of human freedom. One of the catalysts was most certainly the Declaration of Independence. Credit must be given not merely to Jefferson and Enlightenment thinkers but to Christians too, who propelled the abolition movement here and abroad, as William Wilberforce did in England.

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Few historians tell the story of Jefferson better than Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, author of The Founders' Key. In a recent speech, he noted that most American schoolchildren know only two things about him: that he owned slaves and he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

"They don't learn that when our nation first expanded, it was into the Northwest Territory and that slavery was forbidden in that territory," Arnn said in a speech at Hillsdale about a year ago. "They don't learn that the land in that territory was ceded to the federal government from Virginia, or that it was on the motion of Thomas Jefferson that the condition of the gift was that slavery in that land be eternally forbidden. If schoolchildren learned that, they would come to see Jefferson as a human being who inherited things and did things himself that were terrible but who regretted those things and fought against them."

Arnn was just getting started. "The astounding thing, after all, is not that some of our founders were slaveholders. There was a lot of slavery back then, as there had been for all of recorded time. The astounding thing—the miracle, even, one might say—is that these slaveholders founded a republic based on principles designed to abnegate slavery."

What schoolchildren don't learn is that Jefferson was, like the rest of us, a complicated man. They don't learn, for instance, what Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," he wrote. "The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."

These are not mere omissions but something more devious and cynical, according to Arnn. Ideologues posing as historians and social studies teachers are committed to a rendition of the past that leaves us less free. And less human.

"To present young people with a full and honest account of our nation's history is to invest them with the spirit of freedom," he said. "It is to teach them something more than why our country deserves their love, although that is a good in itself. It is to teach them that the people in the past, even the great ones, were human and had to struggle. And by teaching them that, we prepare them to struggle with the problems and evils in and around them.

"Teaching them instead that the past was simply wicked and that now they are able to see so perfectly the right, we do them a disservice and fit them to be slavish, incapable of developing sympathy for others or undergoing trials on their own. Depriving the young of the spirit of freedom will deprive us all of our country. It could deprive us, finally, of our humanity itself. This cannot be allowed to continue. It must be stopped," Arnn said.

As we celebrate another anniversary of our nation's birth, Arnn's words are worth repeating. And sharing. So too are the words of King, Kennedy and Lincoln. Because our nation's founding was—and always will be—worthy of celebration.