It is once again the 4th of July, the day where we as Americans celebrate our declared independence from Great Britain’s tyrannical government, church, and king in 1776 (which was technically on the 2nd, not the 4th, but that’s another article someday). For most of us, it’s a holiday we wear with pride and honor – even those among us more ignorant to the finer details. But for some, there are strong opinions against looking upon this date with celebratory eyes, and the reasons for holding them range from reasonable to absurd. While I do think misconceptions tend to lead most of the naysayers to their positions, I certainly want to take care not to frivolously trample on them.
As such, I would like to recall a recent story that happened to me as an example of when a fairly reasonable contention pitted me against a respected colleague. Through that ensuing conversation, both sides of the argument became exposed to new perspectives, and progress was (hopefully) obtained.
A very dear friend of mine recently explained to me why that she as a black woman could not bring herself to celebrate the 4th of July, and how the anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the true independence day for she and her people. She even went so far as to speak critically of her fellow black Americans who do choose to celebrate the birth of our nation despite the fact that the nation in question would continue to grow on the back of slave labor for another century.
Let me just start off by saying that I absolutely understand this perspective – and as a while male with a very limited personal perspective on even modern life in America, I cannot even begin to presume what is or isn’t reasonable for a black woman in this country to speak out about. This friend of mine is very self-motivated and successful in her own life, and I do not for a moment suspect that she would hold this view if it were anything but her completely genuine belief – she gains nothing from it, and is asking for nothing because of it. And yet, I couldn’t help myself – I debated her about it.
It was a friendly enough exchange, and by the end of it neither of us had changed our minds much, but the mutual respect remained and new perspectives were respectively illuminated. But I still stand firm on my own views on the matter, which I will now outline below.
First and foremost, one must be willing to understand the difference between conceptualization and reality. The Declaration of Independence was, for all its strengths, clearly the former. It would take years for an actual founding document with weight (i.e. the United States Constitution) to be ratified by all the states at the time, and even that document had some glaring issues (3/5 compromise and/or lack of direct address to the issue of slavery, anyone?), but the utter brilliance of the founders can be found in the fact that the Constitution was designed to be a living, amendable document – they future-proofed their own country in a way that still promised to keep the power in the hands of the people and as away from the leaders as functionally possible.
But my friend, of course, doesn’t quite find any consolation in the argument that “well, they tried,” and I can’t really blame her. While it has been argued before that the United States might not even be a country at all today had the slavery issue not been kicked a little further down the road for future generations to deal with, it still remains a glaring black mark on this nation’s history that more death and injustice on slavery’s behalf would continue relatively unchallenged in the meantime.
My argument, however, is that without even the conceptual revolution that the Declaration brought upon this piece of land, the actual liberation of all men, who Jefferson clearly wrote are created equal, would not have occurred when it did, nor would it have been celebrated as being in the true spirit of this country from square one as it so frequently is – even today. And that’s the real point, here: the true spirit of America, and the Declaration itself, is that all human beings should have equal recognition and freedom before the law.
It’s a domino effect, and perhaps the only true domino effect in legal history. Because right there in its very first breath, the U.S. is declaring that it sees no difference between any of its people, that each person is an equally valid individual, and that the individual holds certain inalienable rights that no gods or kings or supreme rulers can ever take away. Nature’s god, the self-evident truths, and the like, determine our rights; not other human beings with power. What other country before America had such revolutionary language present in its founding documents? This country was truly the first. And even though it took far too long for the issue of slavery to finally be addressed, once it finally was, there was no denying the direction things had to go. It was the very language of the Declaration itself, stating “all men are created equal,” that was cited in the debates that ultimately got the 13th Amendment passed – the dominos finally fell. Any other previously slaveholding country had to retrofit something additional to their books in order to end slavery – America had but to naturally progress along the path that Jefferson had already laid out.
So the next time the true nobility of the American Revolution is challenged, make note of just how forward-thinking the founders really were, and how by the nature of its very construct, America was always meant to be truly, uncompromisingly free.