Independence Day

Illustration by Cindi Ross Scoppe.

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.

For most of its 1,322 words, the Declaration of Independence is a tedious list of grievances against the king of England, unlikely to attract the sympathy of the monarchs of Europe, who no doubt worried about the prospect of their own bands of rebellious aristocrats, let alone the aristocrats of England or elsewhere, some of whom faced equal challenges from a king who was not a treacherous ocean removed.

But 36 aspirational words elevated the cause of our Founding Fathers to one the world could not ignore. It signaled to generations yet unborn that these “united States of America” would be different. It set our nascent nation apart.

The Declaration of Independence — whose endorsement by the delegates from South Carolina and the 12 other colonies we celebrate today — was not a governing document. But neither was it simply an embrace of revolution.

In 1776, there was nothing self-evident about the idea that all men — even all white men — were created equal. There was nothing self-evident about the idea that even aristocrats had a right to life and liberty, much less something so frivolous as the pursuit of happiness.

Yet the great philosopher-statesmen who came together in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 aspired to ideals greater than their circumstances allowed them to live. So they created the blueprint — enshrined a decade later in our Constitution — for a nation built upon the foundation of ideals, rather than power alone.

Two hundred forty-three years later, that nation of ideals faces growing internal dissent, disturbing incivility, intolerance from both ends of the political spectrum. And yet if we will allow them to do so, there is great power to bind us together in those 36 words — this secular catechism that has so permeated our thinking that we rarely even recognize the influence it holds over every one of us.

How many times in a year — or even in a day — do we speak of all people being created equal, or the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How many political debates center on the failure or fulfillment of those promises? But these ideals, which truly have become self-evident to all Americans, are either out of reach or off the radar in much of the world — even much of the industrialized world.

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Those 36 words declared and now define our shared belief in the primacy of the individual over the hereditary hierarchies and highly structured societies of the 18th century. Our conviction that all individuals deserve the opportunity to make the best of themselves. Our independence and competitiveness and optimism.

Our allegiance to the values of privacy and pragmatism and hard work and the American dream. Our embrace of the concept of the inherent right to say what we want to say, to think what we want to think, to believe what we want to believe, or not believe. They are the ideals that set us apart, and that unite us.

In 1776, it never occurred to most revolutionaries that Thomas Jefferson’s equal and entitled men would include black men. Or women. Or people who didn’t own property. Or people whose values and beliefs and personal preferences didn’t conform to a rigid society. But the very ubiquity of these ideals of equality and freedom and rights allowed each succeeding generation to expand them to an ever-broader range of Americans.

Today, our society remains far short of our ideals, yet far closer to them than ever before. Today, we remain the one great nation that traces its shared heritage entirely to a set of great ideals.

On this day, yes, we celebrate our independence. But as we search for unity in our increasingly fragmented society, we also celebrate the broader ideals of equality-based self-governance that compel us to strive every day for a more perfect union — and a more perfect world.

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