On July 9, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was first publicly read to the citizens of New York – “We hold these truths to be self-evident … “ – they responded by decapitating an equestrian statue of George III, cutting off his nose and placing his head on a spike outside a tavern. Metal from the statue was later turned into 42,088 bullets, intended, by one account, “to assimilate with the brains” of the British.
Americans have always taken their John Locke and natural law with a side of ferocious nationalism. The Declaration’s shining vision of universal rights was introduced, after all, in the midst of a vicious war of attrition. The document itself accuses the king of inciting mass atrocities against civilians. The “glorious cause” split the fledgling country roughly into thirds – patriots, the uncommitted, and loyalists (who were sometimes roughly treated). The Civil War was not the first American conflict that divided families. William Franklin, Ben’s illegitimate son, was the last royal governor of New Jersey. His father disinherited him.
And the ideals of the new nation were immediately rendered hypocritical by the presence of about 600,000 enslaved human beings. Yet one of those slave-owners, Thomas Jefferson – bookish, retiring, possessing what John Adams called a “happy talent for composition” – injected a philosophic statement into a protest movement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
America could have been declared independent from Britain without all men being declared equal.
The seed lay dormant for decades. At first, Americans celebrated their independence each year without paying much attention to the Declaration. “See your Declaration Americans!” vented abolitionist David Walker in 1829. “Do you understand your own language?” In 1857, Abraham Lincoln compared the document to “old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won.” But he suspected that the ideals of the Declaration had been placed there “for future use.”
This remains one of the most unlikely stories of history. Because Jefferson inserted an abstract truth into a bloody, fratricidal struggle, Lincoln could claim the mantle of the Founders during a bloodier struggle, essentially refounding the country on the best interpretation of its principles. After a further century of African-American suffering, striving and demand, Lyndon Johnson could sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and hand a pen to Martin Luther King Jr. Slowly, awkwardly, America was learning to understand its own language. This story justifies a mix of realism and idealism. And yet: All men are created equal. The phrase is enough to cause a catch in the throat.
Recently I met with a group of democracy activists from Burma. During lunch, I sat next to a young man who appeared college-aged. I found that he had already spent five and a half years in prison for organizing student protests. The idea of equality still drives people to amazing, almost irrational sacrifices. It remains the most disruptive, hopeful force of history: All men are created equal. This is not, in the end, just an American language. Shortly before his death, Jefferson reflected that the Declaration was “pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.” A difficult delivery, no doubt. But long expected.
MICHAEL GERSON’S email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.