Two cheers for the Declaration of Independence: The weird, contradictory and radical vision of human equality that America couldn't handle

How a bold vision of universal human rights, written by a slaveowner, bedeviled America and changed the world

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 4, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)


What exactly do we celebrate on the Fourth of July? I mean, beyond meat charred beyond recognition and then slathered with sriracha, beer that is either too watery or tastes like soup left in the fridge too long, and loud explosions? All of which are cool, don’t get me wrong. Most people probably have no real clue, which is consistent with the history of the holiday, not to mention with a nation that is allergic to history except in its most simplistic and mythological forms. Pretty much since the beginning of the republic, the Fourth has been conceived as a generalized celebration of American independence, big on symbolic display but short on substance. Philadelphia apparently had it all figured out by July 4, 1777, a day of speeches, prayers, military parades, 13-gun salutes and evening fireworks. (The next year, George Washington granted his troops a double ration of rum. Now we’re talking!)

So basically it’s just America, fuck yeah, in the immortal words of Trey Parker. Freedom isn’t free. Blind, weepy jingoism from the right and cautious, boring homilies about hope and promise from what we hilariously describe as the left. But here’s the thing: What happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, was not boring at all, and is well worth our attention and our remembrance. The United States of America did not yet exist, except in the most hazy and notional form. (It was another 13 years before we had a constitution.) The Revolutionary War had only recently begun, and the outcome was by no means certain. What emerged from the political chaos of that summer was no more than an idea, or a set of ideas, combined into an extraordinary document that would change the course of history.

I’m talking about the Declaration of Independence, of course. (It was printed and dated on July 4, although the Continental Congress vote on independence actually happened two days earlier, and grumpy John Adams always thought July 2 should be the national holiday.) That’s the one that holds certain truths to be self-evident, truths about universal human equality and universal human rights, among them the “pursuit of Happiness,” a phrase that amazes me every time I encounter it. Not quite as well known but every bit as important is the next paragraph, the one asserting that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it …” A few sentences later, the language gets even stronger, and the right of the people to overthrow an abusive and despotic government becomes a “duty.”

These days, I’m pretty sure only scary right-wing militia guys encounter that last part with any sense of its moral seriousness. But if you can detach the rhetoric from those associations and consider its impact on human history, well, holy crap. More than 100 declarations of national independence around the world have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s structure or borrowed chunks of his prose, from the Haitian example adopted after Toussaint Louverture’s slave uprising of 1804 to the Vietnamese declaration of independence written by Ho Chi Minh in 1945 to the one adopted by white-ruled Rhodesia in 1965 (which for some reason did not say anything about people being created equal.) Most of us take the Declaration for granted or ignore it; we enshrine it as holy writ, or we deride it as the self-serving testament of a bunch of white, male slave-owning hypocrites. Those responses, to my mind, do not meet the philosophical challenge posed by the Declaration, whose revolutionary and transformative potential went far beyond anything the cabal of affluent colonists who created it could possibly have imagined.

OK, that might not be fair when it comes to Jefferson, the Slave-Owning Hypocrite in Chief, who no doubt had an inkling of the historical significance, and was always writing with posterity in view. After his own plodding and earnest fashion, Adams glimpsed the big picture too. But most of those guys with their names at the bottom (my favorites are Button Gwinnett, Caesar Rodney and “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” not to be confused, I guess, with Charles Carroll of Daytona Beach), who are believed to have signed it weeks or months later, were only thinking about the short-term practical consequences. Could they persuade George III to back down, and attract foreign aid to their cause? (No to the first question, yes to the second.)

There were good reasons why the text of the Declaration fell into obscurity during the republic’s early decades, before it was revived and revitalized by Abraham Lincoln, who grasped its implicit meanings more vividly than any other 19th-century white American. We like to congratulate ourselves, in the present tense, for our superior wisdom and our enlightened position (an error known as “historicism”), but it’s not like the glaring contrast between rhetoric and reality went unnoticed in 1776. As soon as the Declaration reached Britain, a leading abolitionist named Thomas Day responded: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

I bet Jefferson didn't like that one bit. But as I’ve suggested, I don’t think any of those guys, not even him, understood what they were doing or the significance it would assume later. The Declaration had to be written and enacted quickly, against a climate of worsening guerrilla warfare and all sorts of dubious deal-making and arm-twisting. Pro-British colonial governments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were overthrown in what were essentially coups; New York was under British occupation and that state’s delegation to the Continental Congress never cast a vote on independence. Delegates edited down Jefferson’s draft by about one-fourth and simplified its language (which infuriated him), but they didn’t have much time for debate and cogitation. This was an instrument meant to serve a purpose, and as long as it sounded about right, they probably didn’t think about it too much.

This was virtually the opposite of the more laborious later process of drafting the Constitution – and look how that turned out! I’m sorry, but that thing is a mess. It’s full of compromises, half-measures and ass-covering, and written in deliberately vague legalese that seemed antiquated even at the time. How much conspiracy theory and half-baked Internet scholarship has been fueled by the famous stipulation that only a “natural born Citizen” is eligible for the presidency, without explaining what that meant? On a more serious level, how much murder and mayhem has been enabled by the garbled syntax of the one-sentence Second Amendment, which reads like a cut-and-paste error from the 18th-century version of Microsoft Word?

The only self-evident truth in the Constitution is that it was the work of a committee who haggled over every word. The two documents are entirely different beasts, to be sure. The Constitution was meant as the user’s manual for a new nation and a new mode of government, and since its authors explicitly envisioned a republic run by a small caste of gentlemen-farmers, their manual is hopelessly inadequate for an urban, polyglot consumer democracy of 300-plus million people.

The Declaration is something else again, or rather several things at once: It’s a public broadside announcing that a series of petty disputes over commerce and taxes had escalated to the point that we were actually cutting the cord with Mother England, and a list of grievances against the king that ranged from murder and pillage to constant meddling in the colonial legislative process. Delegates famously removed Jefferson’s allegation that the Crown had forced the American colonists to accept the evils of slavery (talk about passing the buck, Tom!), but retained the charge that George III had incited rebellion among the “merciless Indian Savages,” in the document’s ugliest phrase.

But behind and surrounding all the political minutiae and that telltale moment of racist paranoia, there’s a crazily ambitious mode of blue-sky rhetoric that is distinctively Jeffersonian, along with a remarkable distillation of several strains of Enlightenment philosophy into a few sentences. Lincoln read the preamble to the Declaration, 87 years later, as a moral challenge the United States had so far failed to meet, a challenge to be a better nation than we were. I’m inclined to view Thomas Jefferson in similar terms: He understood perfectly well that the nature of his personal fortune (to say nothing of his private life) was at odds with his supposed principles; his life as a statesman and thinker was a series of failed efforts to reconcile the two, to make himself into a better person than he was.

This may be an overly mystical mode for discussing history, but the Declaration is so much greater than the limited and disappointing men who wrote it and signed it that it seems as if an unknown force spoke through it or through them. Those explosive ideas about natural rights shared by all people and national rights of sovereignty and self-determination had been bubbling around Britain and Europe for the previous century or more. The Declaration of Independence was like an oil well drilled into an underground vein: It brought those ideas gushing out of the Zeitgeist and onto the page, not fully worked out or entirely conscious, in a hurriedly constructed political document that no one especially intended as a philosophical landmark that would shape global history for 200 years and more.

Jefferson himself later wrote that there was nothing original in the Declaration, but reams of subsequent scholarship tracing its origins and influences suggest he was being uncharacteristically modest. It’s fair to say that he synthesized and integrated many different sources, including John Locke’s "Second Treatise of Government," the English Bill of Rights from 1689, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson and Emer de Vattel’s “Law of Nations,” among others. But the synthesis of all those currents into a few brief and elegant sentences, along with the bold claim of universality, was in itself highly original. It was not merely true that all men were created equal; it was “self-evident.” You can argue that Jefferson and the delegates privately understood the term “all men” to mean property-owning white male adults, but that's not what they wrote. Similarly, while the founding fathers certainly did not envision women as full citizens, any 18th-century reader would understand the words “man” and “men,” in a legal or philosophical context, to mean human beings in general.

Jefferson also wrote, 40 years later, that he intended the Declaration “to be an expression of the American mind.” That’s a scary concept today, when the American mind consists of one part Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and three parts Candy Crush. What Jefferson meant, I’m pretty sure, was that he was trying to summarize the attitudes of the educated colonial leadership of the 1770s, who shared a set of broad Enlightenment ideals. But the true origins of the Declaration are not American, and neither is its true legacy. If we really want to celebrate and appreciate the Declaration today, as we consume aneurysm-inducing barbecue and Old Milwaukee by the 18-pack, we need to decouple it from the “American mind” and American history.

As Lincoln perceived, the Declaration’s radical vision of universal human equality and a universal right to pursue happiness – an idea Jefferson definitely didn’t get from Locke, but might have found in the now-forgotten Swiss political theorist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui – was an almost utopian moral model, to which America did not and quite likely could not measure up. It would be profoundly misleading to suggest that the United States embodies the philosophical principles laid out in the Declaration, or ever has. Those conceptions cannot be contained by America, and most certainly are not limited to America – and furthermore, a long political tradition within America has always resisted them.

During the vigorous debates surrounding the drafting of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence almost never came up. None of Jefferson’s language or phraseology was brought into the Constitution, and neither the word “equality” nor the concept of equal and universal human rights ever appears. But the influence of Jefferson’s 1776 synthesis is unmistakable in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the central document of the French Revolution – which is hardly surprising, since Jefferson was its co-author, alongside his pal the Marquis de Lafayette. You can pretty much draw a straight line from those two documents to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, which has been viewed with hatred and suspicion ever since by the most jingoistic elements of the American right, precisely the same people who fetishize and deify the glorious Founding Fathers.

Insisting upon universal human rights that apply equally and without asterisks to everyone in the world has long struck many American conservatives as a sinister if not downright Communistic notion. It undermines the God-given specialness of America, our sense that we have earned rights and freedoms that other nations haven’t, and that we are persecuted for it. More important still, once you start to take these airy-fairy notions of universal human rights seriously – or, even worse, that second part about the rights of nations to throw off despots and usurpers and establish their own governments -- it tends to interfere with oil-company profits, CIA-sponsored coups and unilateral military invasions. How inconvenient that this one-world, America-hater conspiracy has its roots in the foundational document of 1776, the one we hypothetically celebrate on our big summer holiday that was written by our most famous political philosopher and third president!

For many decades, the answer to this devilish paradox was a long-running game of rhetorical dodgeball: You ignored the language and implications of the Declaration for as long as possible, and when that was no longer possible you sought to limit the damage. Maybe Jefferson’s idealistic language didn’t really mean what it said (or say what it meant); maybe he really did just mean white men, or just men, or at any rate just Americans. Maybe he had simply been wrong! During his legendary 1858 debates with Lincoln, Sen. Stephen Douglas argued that Jefferson was solely concerned with the case for American independence, and never intended to argue for the equality of an “inferior or degraded race,” i.e., black people. He slipped that stuff in right at the top just for kicks, or by accident.

Mainstream historians have often contended that Douglas was probably right, but that Lincoln’s more expansive interpretation carried the day. I read the inner conflict of Jefferson differently: This is a first-class mind and a great writer we’re talking about. He knew exactly what he was doing, which was, as I said earlier, challenging himself to stand for values he did not fulfill personally. Throughout our nation’s history, those who resisted the end of slavery, equal rights for women, the Civil Rights struggle and the fight for marriage equality -- and who now, openly or otherwise, resist universal principles of human rights, national sovereignty and self-determination – have essentially embraced the guilt and hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson, rather than his efforts to transcend them. This is America: We do what we want, especially when the lights are off, and call it democracy.

I’m not saying that the deeds-vs.-words thing with Thomas Jefferson isn’t a problem. It’s a huge problem. One of the greatest single sentences ever written in English, and the most important summary document of 18th-century political philosophy, were the work of a guy who looks worse and worse the more we learn about him. “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.” Now, I know we can pick that apart to find the roots of bourgeois liberal individualism and the consumer society and so forth, but the more basic problem is that it’s brilliant and magnificent and daring and without precedent, and it caused immense political earthquakes all around the globe. And its author was a mendacious and deluded asshole whose personal and political hypocrisy poisoned our democracy at the roots, in ways we can never entirely undo.

So if we take a moment amid the mountains of beer-broiled brats and Buffalo wings to celebrate the document published in Philadelphia on this day 239 years ago, and to marvel once again at the fact that it suggests we have a right to be happy (or at least to try to be), we’re celebrating something much bigger and broader in scope than one stupid country. We have to be, or the whole thing was pointless. What is the Declaration of Independence? An imperfect vessel made by imperfect people in an imperfect country, in which an idea crucial to furthering the liberation of the human species was captured and distilled, almost by accident, and given back to the world.

That was a cool thing in many ways, as well as a fraught and deeply contradictory phenomenon, but it messed us up. We weren’t ready for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence in 1776; we have repeatedly tried to ditch them or ignore them, and we still haven’t adjusted to them. (That part about the duty to overthrow despotic regimes that defy the popular will and usurp democracy? That might really blow our minds, if we gave it a little thought.) Those ideas were never our property in the first place, and they didn’t make us special in the eyes of God. We’ve had a tough time figuring that out. Sometimes we’ve behaved as if having thought such awesome thoughts 200-odd years ago gave us carte blanche to stomp on the entire world with zero regard for our supposed principles. Sometimes we have waged an evangelical struggle to redeem the good Jefferson from the bad Jefferson, to purify our national soul and live up to the unfulfilled promise of the Declaration at last.

One of those behavior patterns is definitely preferable to the other, but both of them reflect a really high degree of national narcissism and self-importance, and pretty much assume that the fate of the world rests on our shoulders. News flash: It doesn’t! It is pretty much time for America to get over itself and start acting like a normal country with normal priorities, like trying to provide decent lives for its citizens and get along with its neighbors. I kind of think that’s what the Declaration of Independence was driving at anyway. Of course, when I say “normal country” it’s just a figure of speech. We’ll still have corn dogs and vegan corn dogs and bacon-wrapped dogs and Korean bulgogi dogs, and some guy down the block will deep-fry a turkey in an oil barrel using an engine winch, and if that isn’t exactly what Jefferson meant by the pursuit of happiness, it’s close enough. Happy Fourth, everybody.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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