The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence were, admittedly, not terribly representative of today’s America. All were male. All were white. All were (at least publically) straight. All were Christian. All were “rich” by the standards of the day. And 41 of them owned slaves.
They weren’t perfect, either as individuals or as a group. But they had a perfect idea. Against this idea, they pledged “Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” That comes directly from the Declaration of Independence. In response, a significant army was fielded by King George to defend his honor (at least as he perceived it) against this assault from “rebels” who were “treasonous.” The British soldiers committed some significant atrocities, among them hanging people to the point of unconsciousness, then reviving them and then disemboweling them.
The signing of the Declaration wasn’t, in other words, an act undertaken lightly. Clearly, the idea was important.
So let’s talk about their idea, and let’s make it bigger than them. Who knows what was really in the mind of any one of those 56 white, Christian, rich, straight, mostly slave-owning, men? Clearly, their desire was to push back against what they considered to be oppression. Maybe their subjective individual motives were self-interested. Maybe not. But it was certainly further than any other group of 56 people had gone in history. Had there been revolutions and rebellions in empire after empire, for thousands of years of recorded history? Of course. But had there been a Declaration of Independence from treachery, tyranny and oppression as an idea of what it meant to be human?
Never before. The Magna Carta, often touted as the “forerunner” of the Declaration of Independence, doesn’t even come close. The Magna Carta’s primary goal was to protect the privileges of nobility against their own king. It had nothing to do with the fundamental dignity of the human being.
In the Declaration also appears the phrase “self-evident,” as in, “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” The idea is that we are all “created equal.” Again, and before you take that breath I hear, I get it. I’m sure, as you are, that more than one of those white, Christian, rich, straight (mostly slave-owning) males wouldn’t have necessarily extended that idea to everyone. Perhaps they didn’t mean women, or black people, or anyone else who wasn’t white or Christian. Yet the very idea that they could argue that all human beings (“all men”) are created equal is still a revolutionary idea all by itself.
And that idea matured. It was the idea behind Abraham Lincoln’s insistence on freedom for slaves as a just resolution to the Civil War. It was the pavement for the marches of the suffragettes. It was the mortar of the civil rights movement. Today, it’s the force behind the reach for the brass ring of a society largely free of institutional bias based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual or gender identity, creed, disability or country of origin.
And it’s why people like Donald Trump and those who claim him as their spokesman are so abhorrent; why those ideas are so “anti-American.” Why those ideas – those words – have nothing to do with “patriotism.”
It takes a lot of things to be a patriot. Courage. Maturity. Logic. Restraint. Hope. Compassion. That truth is “self-evident.”
The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence and the courage it took to author that document, is, to me, what it means be an “American.” The source of the idea hardly matters anymore. It’s an idea that lives powerfully beyond the people who birthed it, which is why we honor the document, and the day, and not so much the people.
As we watch the hate, the bile, the filth – and, of course, the parade of fear and ignorance it takes be part of the Trump movement – remember the self-evident truth: All people are created equal.
At our very, very best aspirations, Americans believe that idea to their very core, and will pledge their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to defend it.
Happy Fourth of July (belated).