This song lays out what true Americans would like our country to be.
On July 2, 1776, representatives of thirteen British colonies in North America voted to break free from British rule and form a new nation. (Five more years of fighting against the British would follow.) Two days later, a document was officially drafted that attempted to explain the reasons for this action. The date written on this “Declaration of Independence” would ultimately become the officially celebrated birthday of The United States of America, a day that Americans generally (and “creatively”) refer to as The Fourth of July. The most quoted parts of the Declaration of Independence come from its opening two paragraphs, and they have become a significant part of our national creed:
“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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
It sounds simple enough. Governments exist to protect individual rights – a radical idea at the time – and if a government fails to perform this function, then the people have a right to get rid of it. You can make a strong case, however, that the people of the United States have spent the last 234 years struggling to determine the exact meaning of these noble words. To some Americans today, the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate the greatness of the United States, a nation that is history’s greatest embodiment of a land where all people are guaranteed their basic rights. To others, the words in the Declaration would be the first of many examples of blatant American hypocrisy.
“All men are created equal.” At least the founding fathers were somewhat honest in only referring to men. After all, women in early American history had the legal and political rights of children. Still, the founders could have been more honest by saying, “all property-holding, white men are created equal.” Black slaves had no rights, Native Americans were viewed as obstacles to settlement that needed to be displaced, and in many states, people without property could not vote. This was hardly the embodiment of a democratic, freedom loving society where all were created equal.
Of course, concepts like “equality” and “rights” are vague and tricky to define. If you ask Americans today of various political persuasions how they define these words, you are likely to get a variety of answers. Does “equality” refer to the distribution of goods, or is it limited to equality of opportunity? Do all humans have a right to basic needs like a college education, health care coverage, and housing, or are these reserved to those who can afford them? I wonder how the founding fathers would have answered these questions. Given the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was both a slaveholder and plantation owner, it is clear that his views on equality and human rights were not particularly radical. It is difficult to generalize, however. After all, the founders were a collection of opinionated individuals, not a single entity with one point of view.
In a sense, the American Revolution did not end when the British decided to stop fighting. Instead, the revolution has been an ongoing process. Displacing the British was only part one. When the British were gone, the truly difficult questions had to be answered. What system of government would this new nation have? What policies would it follow? Who would rule this new nation? On the surface, the answers seemed easy. We would have a government free from Britain that protected individual rights, and Americans would rule themselves. Americans, however, both then and now, have never agreed with one another on everything. We have always been a society divided by ethnicity, race, gender, age, social class, religion, and political ideology. These divisions that existed in colonial times did not magically disappear once the British were gone. Even during the Revolutionary War, Americans who fought for the patriot cause had various motivations for doing so, and they had different visions for this new nation’s future. The revolutionary concepts of freedom, liberty, and equality were defined in a wide variety of ways.
Too often, particularly on the Fourth of July, we Americans mythologize those first patriots who founded our nation. In comparison to those glorious people of the past, our country today can seem pretty lousy. But when you take a closer look at the past, you will see that they were not all that different from us. If anything, their society was much worse. Over the course of the last 234 years, our country has expanded voting rights, abolished slavery, established better work conditions, and improved its attitudes toward and treatment of ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and the disabled. There is obviously still a long way to go, but progress has clearly been made. Many people and events, of course, have played a role in these social changes, but the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence have been a significant, consistent, revolutionary force.
The United States does not live up to its noble ideals. No nation ever does. So Americans should not simply rest on their laurels every Fourth of July and celebrate how great we are. Ideals should not be confused with reality. This does not mean, however, that we should all become cynical and depressed because our country falls so woefully short. The United States, in spite of all of its weaknesses and problems, has taken steps over the course of its history toward more closely realizing its creed. A recognition that revolutions never really end, and that progress is possible, should inspire all Americans to push our nation closer to those ideals that we claim to believe.