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.
237 years ago, a group of men gathered in Philadelphia to sign what I would argue is the single most important document in the history of the modern world. The Declaration of Independence, which so inspired the Americans of the thirteen colonies to rebel against their overlords, was the first time anyone had thought to write down that all mankind are created equal. What seems perfectly plain and for anyone living in a democracy in 2013 was extreme and rebellious in 1776. These 56 men were forced into action by what they saw as the tyrannical actions of the British Monarch and his Parliament; they hadn’t been convinced of Independence even 10 years earlier, some of the 56 still remained unconvinced even in July 1776. Today they would be branded terrorists, which is difficult to properly comprehend given the liberal principles they stood for. Perhaps the best way to relate them to the modern world is to think about how we view modern terrorists. Now I am certainly not saying that the goals of modern terrorists are of equal merit to that of Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams and so on; far from it, in 2013 I’d like to think that we can tell the difference. But think about those in the modern world who seem extreme and that challenge the world order; those were Revolutionaries of 1770s and 1780s.
Did Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, know what he was doing? Did Benjamin Franklin and John Adams who amended Jefferson’s initial draft? I like to think so. These were intelligent men who knew the magnitude of what they were doing and were smart enough to realize that there was no basis in the laws of the land for declaring the thirteen colonies independent. But crucially they realized there was basis in the laws of man, and that these trump any other law that was written down. It was the brilliance of Jefferson to capture this central law in words and write it down. I liken this discovery to Newton discovering gravity; it had been there all along, but no one had ever been able to give proper meaning to it.
Up until now I have used ‘man’ quite often; I use it as replacement for ‘mankind’, ‘humans’, etc. But of course ‘man’ is also perfectly accurate and could have actually been more specific – ‘white man’. The Declaration of Independence did not free the slaves, and it did not give women the same social standing as men. Both these facts are unfortunate to say the very least, but it is difficult to reasonably blame the signatories for this. It is unfair to judge decisions and actions so far in the past by modern standards. After all the Patriots were a product of their time, in fact actually they weren’t; they were the progressives and forward thinkers of their time. Jefferson himself, along with other Patriots was uneasy about the slave trade. That being said, his record on slavery was hit and miss a best; he freed some of the slaves he owned, he briefly tried to legislate for the emancipation of slaves twice, but he also traded hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. Jefferson was much like America as whole from 1776 onwards; by no means perfect, but heading in the right direction. Every journey, no matter how long or hard, starts with a single step. The Patriots of 1776 took that first step, and because of this, their predecessors were able to continue the journey; not least Abraham Lincoln who referenced the declaration directly in his famous Gettysburg Address:
A new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The world has not reached the destination yet, the journey is far from complete. Racism still exists, homosexuals are still not fully equal, some nations still lack a basic democracy and women still remain unequal in many places of the world. But surely we can all be thankful for that first step, and surely the world is a better place overall because of what was declared on the 4th July 1776.
Not everyone likes America; since 1945 it has pursued a controversial foreign policy and alienated many. But surely most can agree its founding and core principles are worth celebrating and supporting. The irony of this blog post is that I, an Englishman living under the very same monarchy and government against which the Patriots rebelled in 1776, can write it and yet I don’t feel the need to rebel, I don’t feel oppressed and I don’t think my Queen is a tyrant. Would my country have got to this place without Jefferson and Adams? Probably. But I very much doubt it would have happened as fast. No matter whether you are an American or a Brit or any other nationality. No matter what gender, colour or sexuality. You should take a moment reflect on those men who gathered in Philadelphia 237 years ago; we can all be grateful that the spirit of Jefferson lives.
p.s. A link to an online copy of the Declaration of Independence
p.p.s. Many people are aware of this but its an interesting piece of Independence Day trivia worth sharing nonetheless. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of the three drafters of the Declaration of Independence and close friends for decades, died fifty years to the day after it was signed, on the 4th July 1826. Supposedly John Adams’ last words were “Jefferson lives”, not knowing his friend had died a couple of hours earlier.