As we celebrate Independence Day, let’s think for a few minutes about the words that were principally drafted by 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, which resulted in the Declaration of Independence — our nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty.
In so many unforgettable phrases, Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of those gathered in Philadelphia to contemplate their yet-to-be formed nation’s sentiments for declaring their freedom from British rule. The political philosophy of the Declaration was not new; its ideals of individual liberty had already been expressed by John Locke and other European philosophers.
What Jefferson did with such clarity was to summarize this philosophy in “self-evident truths” and set forth a list of grievances against King George II in order to justify before the world the breaking of ties between the colonies and the mother country.
While our nation’s Founding Fathers, 56 of whom signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776, are to be honored for their vision, wisdom and sacrifices, it is always appropriate, I believe, to recall certain realities of the time. Like Jefferson himself, others in that group were slave owners, a fact that seems to contradict the heralded preamble to the document:
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.
This contradiction between ideal and real is obvious, but as historic events unfolded over the decades and centuries to follow, the Declaration of Independence served as a source of motivation for many important movements for justice in our nation — and for many other people and nations worldwide — to this day.
The American abolitionists’ fight against slavery and the suffragists’ struggle for voting rights for women were firmly rooted in the words of the Declaration.
And the ongoing movements for civil-rights reforms based upon racial, disability, sexual identity, immigration status and other human differences all deserve and demand action to resolve. They are each based upon the principles of freedom, liberty and achieving a quality of life declared as unalienable by Thomas Jefferson and his co-authors.
As we savor the brilliance of the Declaration, let’s remember that words alone do not bring change or progress. It’s in the actions of enforcement that motivating words become social reality — and only through effective and ardent advocacy can we make the changes that our nation’s founders guided us to dream about and act upon for the betterment of all.
Jack Levine is founder of the Tallahassee-based 4Generations Institute.