The Declaration of Independence and America's Moral Soul
"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."
Vinage canvas print of the Declaration of Independence available at Culture Kraze Marketplace in various sizes here
Perhaps one of the best-known sentences in the English language, and also among the most significant words ever put to paper, the second sentence of the United States Declaration of Independence has, for more than two hundred and forty years, represented the ideal that the United States has set for itself to attain. Now long established as by far the most powerful nation on the planet, the foundations of the US were considerably more humble, but always driven by that highest of ideals.
When armed conflict broke out between colonial settlers and the government of Britain in 1775, the colonists were merely fighting for their rights as subjects o the British Empire. By next year, however, it had become abundantly clear that the colonists were seeking to create their own sovereign nation, founded on a strong backdrop of idealism. At this time, there were already more than half a million black people in the thirteen colonies, and they had played an extensive role in the revolutionary war for both sides. Naturally, however, they signed up to the loyal forces with greater enthusiasm, given British promises of liberty. But when the dust settled after the Battle of Yorktown and the United States increasingly looking like a political reality, the loyalist cause lay in tatters and the time had come to define the ideals and aspirations of a new and proud nation.
A 1975 commemorative stamp of Salem Poor, a former slave who bought his freedom and then fought for the Revolutionary Forces. Fourteen of his fellow soldiers commended his gallantry at the Battle of Bunker Hill in a petition to General Court of Massachusetts.
The colonists undoubtedly aimed high with their ideals, laying the foundation of their state on equality and absolute unencumbered liberty. Of course, the ugly truth of the continued existence of slavery of black people was immediately the original sin of this new nation. It was not lost on either side that the lofty ideals of equality and liberty were certainly hamstrung by the idea that millions were being deprived of their "unalienable rights". In Britain, the abolitionist Thomas Day immediately commented that "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves."
The original draft of the Declaration, in fact, contained a paragraph that was a scathing indictment of the British Empire for creating and profiting off of the slave trade but was ultimately omitted. It is also well known that Thomas Jefferson, the man primarily responsible for drafting the declaration, owned slaves by the hundreds. Thus was born the country that would define the 20th century for mankind, on a bedrock of idealism entwined with hypocrisy.
Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and also the owner of hundreds of slaves. Jefferson was the third president of the United States and left behind a complicated legacy
For all of the flaws of the circumstances of the Declaration of Independence, however, its words ring true today as they did in 1776, and the story of that famous ode to the liberty of mankind was only just beginning. In the immediate aftermath of the independence, the focus shifted to the constitution of the United States itself as opposed to the Declaration, but within a few decades, the domestic political rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton brought it back into focus.
Overseas, the Declaration already had an enormous impact. For starters, it was an influence on The French Revolution, and in turn triggered the Haitian revolution, the first successful slave revolt of its size and scope in recorded history. Both the American and French revolutions were giddy with progressivism in their tone and buoyed on by lofty ideals. However, both sidestepped the question of racial superiority and enslavement and did little to address the situation of the millions under chains as a result of European actions. Among those who defended slavery ideologically, the opinion was often put forth that Africans and their descendants sold into slavery were, in any event, incapable of leading themselves and thus excluded from the high ideals of enlightenment.
Posthumous painting of General Toussaint Louverture
Toussaint Louverture, however, had other ideas. In the same year that the Declaration of Independence was signed in continental North America, Louverture won his freedom from slavery at the age of 33 in Haiti. A prominent leader of Haiti's revolution, he led the slave colony to freedom against the mighty French Empire, and after winning it, maintained his country's sovereignty through a twelve-year struggle, a proud moment in history for black people in particular, and the universality of Enlightenment values in general.
3D Haiti Flag Shower Curtain sets at Culture Kraze Marketplace available here.
The Haitian Revolution was instrumental in bringing the Declaration of Independence back into focus in The United States, as fears of revolts spread among the slavers and calls for following the ideals of the American Revolution rang out among black Americans and white abolitionists. By the turn of the century, it was clear that the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves aware of, and privately deeply embarrassed by, their tacit continuance of slavery and failure to take any action to put a stop to it.
As the 19th century progressed, the Declaration of Independence began to gain increasing momentum. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States did not contain the sweeping assertion of equality of all men that was part of the Declaration, the latter thus becoming a potent tool in the hands of black people and abolitionists, who consistently attempted to shine a light on the rot that lay at the heart of American liberty. For the slavers, the lack of opposition to slavery in the constitution was seen as tacit approval of it, yet they were constantly haunted and embarrassed by reminders of the Declaration. As the civil war drew near, proslavery senators and representatives began to explicitly deny the truth of the Declaration of Independence. This repudiation of the ideals envisaged in the Declaration was perhaps a clear warning that a secessionist movement was inevitable.
Abraham Lincoln, even as a little known congressman, idolized the Founding Fathers and made it a point to elevate the principles of the Declaration, and after years of the civil war ravaging the United States, his opened his immortal Gettysburg address with a reminder of the highest ideals of the American revolution, vindicating the ideal of equality that the Declaration of Independence represented.
General Lee surrenders to General Grant, signalling the end of the American Civil War and of slavery in the United States.
It is a sad truth that the hardships of black people in the United States did not end with the Declaration of Independence, nor with the Emancipation Proclamation, and not even with the Civil Rights Act of 1965. As recent events, such as the murder of George Floyd, show the brutality that black people in America continue to endure, it is perhaps also poignant to note that, although founded in slavery, the United States of America has always aspired to higher and better ideals, and the Declaration of Independence will always remain a clarion call for those who truly celebrate human liberty, inspiring both, Americans and the rest of the world.