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.
Those were radical words in 1776, and they remain radical today.
The idea that “all men” shared some form of equality – and rights not dependent on the largess of rulers – has been embedded in the American genome ever since. No one grasped the full implications at the time.
At the country’s birth, “all men” mostly translated into white male property-owners, ideally Protestants from northern Europe. The definition has been broadening wonderfully ever since.
Summertime in America is full of anniversaries of freedom little noted but worth celebrating. Let’s take a few of them in order:
• July 2, 1788: After ratification by New Hampshire and Virginia, the Congress of the Confederation declared that the U.S. Constitution had been duly approved. Americans thus acquired a charter of checks and balances designed to protect the country from emperors, kings, juntas, warlords and the like.
• July 1-3, 1864: The U.S. Army decisively defeated Robert E. Lee’s invading army at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, shattering Lee’s forces and perceptions of Southern invincibility.
• July 4, 1864: The Confederate river fortress of Vicksburg fell to Ulysses Grant’s siege, splitting the Confederacy along the Mississippi. Military and political battles remained to be fought, but 150 years ago on this day, the slave power received its death sentence.
As Lincoln later said at Gettysburg, the Civil War brought a “new birth of freedom” and saved a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
• July 9, 1868: The 14th Amendment was officially adopted by Congress. Other constitutional amendments get more glory, but the Bill of Rights itself didn’t protect Americans from state abuses when it was written. That didn’t happen until the Supreme Court started using the 14th Amendment to demand protection at all levels of government.
• Aug. 18, 1920: Tennessee’s approval ratified the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Until then, any state could deny full citizenship to half its population.
• July 2, 1964: President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
This monumental legislation drove a stake through the heart of Jim Crow segregation laws. The act banned discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex and national original. It outlawed such racial humiliations as whites-only drinking fountains, theater seats, restaurants and motels. It empowered the federal government to integrate schools.
The idea that “all men are created equal” has been unfolding for 238 years now – often against bitter resistance.
Few of the signers of the Declaration could have known that later generations would take the phrase so literally. Some of them would have been shocked. Today, though, we can be proud that our nation has increasingly concluded that the words mean what they say.