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. Gen. George Washington was convinced that the British had sent prostitutes infected with smallpox into his Cambridge camp in December of 1775 — the 18th-century version of WMD.
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 royal governor of New Jersey. His father disinherited him.
The ideals of the new nation were immediately rendered hypocritical by the presence of about 600,000 enslaved humans. The British took full (and appropriate) propaganda advantage. “How is it,” said Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
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 various “injuries and usurpations” relating to the traditional rights of Englishmen would have been enough. But something more ambitious and universal got planted.
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.”
And Lincoln himself used them. While Lincoln had little respect for Jefferson as a political figure, he praised him for “the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth ... and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
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. Our advance toward the ideals of the Declaration has been protracted, violent and often hypocritical. And yet: All men are created equal. The phrase is enough to cause a catch in the throat.
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.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.