On July 4th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously to adopt a declaration of independence. A document that would publicly state our absolvent from the British crown, denounce predestination, and celebrate a new social contract for a free people. This document, however, is often misstated and there is no better way to set the record straight than on Independence Weekend.
In order to give an insightful analysis, we must know a few things about the key author of this document, this country’s future third president, Thomas Jefferson. He was an incredible intellect as he studied at William and Mary. It was his education that turned him to many different items in life, particularly the Enlightenment Period of Western Europe. It was during this era where philosophes argued about equality, liberty, and unity in the abstract. Little did they know the brilliant mind of Thomas Jefferson would use those arguments as the foundation for the American revolution.
Jefferson was heavily influenced by several outside forces. This is evident in documents he wrote but the ones that were ever so present in the Declaration came from the Enlightenment Period philosophes like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean — Jacque Rousseau. The second paragraph highlighted this. Jefferson wrote, “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.” Jefferson invokes John Locke’s natural rights in the suggestion these rights can never be removed from any entity. In a state of nature, all people have these rights from birth to death.
While that is an extraordinary theme, the most revolutionary idea came from the first part of that sentence. Jefferson, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin, declared equality, not as something that may happen at some point in the future, not as something among a societal class, but as a “self-evident truth.” This was lawyer-like language. If someone denied that notion of equality, he/she would refute something obvious.
Furthermore, let us understand the meaning behind the phrase “all men are created equal.” Jefferson essentially argued King George III, the British nobles, the British officers in colonial America, and the American colonists are the same. This is a complete slap in the face to the feudal system that was known. The mere suggestion that royalty and colonists were equal, for one, and it was an obvious truth, for two, was blasphemous. Such sacrilege became a basis for the American Revolution.
As brilliant as The Declaration was (and is), it cannot be forgotten that Jefferson called the equality of men a clear truth but he did not mean it for slaves. Thomas Jefferson, like most Founding Fathers, was a slaveholder. There was, however, a draft of The Declaration where Jefferson denounced slavery but that paragraph had to be removed due to compromise. But make no mistake, his denouncement did not stop him from continuing its practice or believing African-Americans were less than whites. Frederick Douglass’ 1852 masterful speech in Rochester, New York, reminded citizens The Declaration was not meant for him. As he said, “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!” Douglass said further, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
It should also be mentioned that women were not included. Future First Lady Abigail Adams reminded her husband John to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
As we enter the 246th anniversary of the Second Continental Congress’ adoption of The Declaration, key questions must be posed. Are we all created equal? If so, is it a self-evident truth? Do our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness still exist? While we think about these questions, we cannot forget as brilliant and brave as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and the 51 other patriots who signed their names to The Declaration were, they were not, however, anywhere near perfect.
As we celebrate this occasion, let us honor the past, remember the struggles, and strive for a future where the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”