July 4, 2014


How the Complete Meaning of July Fourth Is Slipping Away (Gordon S. Wood, July 4, 2011, New Republic)

[F]or Americans the Declaration has a special significance. It infused into our culture most of what we have come to believe and value. Our noblest ideals and highest aspirations--our beliefs in liberty, equality, and individual rights, including the right of every person to pursue happiness--came out of the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, it is not surprising that every reform movement in American history--from the abolitionists of the 1830s, to the feminists at Seneca Falls in 1848, to the civil rights advocates of the 1960s--invoked the words and ideals of the Declaration. It was Abraham Lincoln who made the most of the Declaration, particularly its assertions of human equality and inalienable rights. Thomas Jefferson, the principal drafter of the Declaration, said Lincoln, "had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression." A century later, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. took inspiration from this abstract truth embodied in the Declaration.

For us Americans, the words of the Declaration have become central to our sense of nationhood. Because the United States is composed of so many immigrants and so many different races and ethnicities, we can never assume our identity as a matter of course. The nation has had to be invented. At the end of the Declaration, the members of the Continental Congress could only "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." There was nothing else but themselves that they could dedicate themselves to--no patria, no fatherland, no nation as yet. In comparison with the 235 year-old United States, many states in the world today are new, some of them created within fairly recent past. Yet many of these states, new as they may be, are under-girded by peoples who had a pre-existing sense of their ethnicity, their nationality. In the case of the United States, the process was reversed: We Americans were a state before we were a nation, and much of our history has been an effort to define that nationality.

In fact, even today America is not a nation in any traditional meaning of the term. We Americans have had to rely on ideas and ideals in order to hold ourselves together and think of ourselves as a single people. And more than any other single document in American history, the Declaration has embodied these ideas and ideals. Since it is our most sacred text, the day, July 4, 1776, that gave birth to it ought to be understood with all the significance and solemnity that John Adams gave to it.

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[originally posted: 7/05/11]

Posted by at July 4, 2014 12:44 AM

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