Independence Day has largely become a day for barbecue and furniture sales. For many Americans, however, it remains an important day of reflection, a day to celebrate the founding of this great nation. This Independence Day may be more important than any in recent history, with protests continuing and historic symbols under attack. America’s past sins are being dredged up and reexamined. It is a good time, then, to look at the Declaration of Independence within its proper context.
I want to address my fellow black Americans: This country is as much ours as it is anyone else’s—and it has been since the beginning. Too many blacks believe that America is racist, that it does not foster equality, and that its founding principles do not include all citizens. This is evident in the common reply from some blacks to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which was, “When was America ever great?”
The answer to this question depends on one’s definition of “great.” If “great” means “perfect,” then former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s judgment that our Constitution was “defective from the start” seems true. Yet when measured against other countries—all very far from perfect themselves—America was clearly unique. In the late 18th century, most of the world was ruled by tribal leaders who gained power through conquest or monarchs who inherited power through family lineage and treated citizens as subjects.
The Declaration of Independence was special in how it stated the requirement of a new form of government. It, and the Constitution that followed, turned history on its head. Before the Declaration, leaders created laws to guide how people should act and live. The Declaration argued, by contrast, that man was governed by natural law that comes from “nature’s God.” The primary goal of government should be to protect these natural rights, granted to man by God. The document further stated that the government’s power should be derived from the consent of the governed.
The argument detractors make—and that we hear so often today—is that the Founders were racists and slaveowners who did not believe that everyone should be included in the new nation’s mission statement. Applying such a crude blanket judgment to the Founders as a group is not very useful, since there were many differences among them; yet even if this judgment were true across the board, it would have no bearing on the greatness of the idea on which America was founded. No matter the Founders’ flaws, what they created was great and unique in history.
Besides, the best argument against slavery is the Declaration of Independence itself. If all men are created equal, then blacks cannot be excluded. If our rights are endowed by the Creator, they cannot be given or taken away by arbitrary leaders.
Because a younger America did not honor the freedoms afforded to all does not negate the fact that blacks still had these rights; they were, and are, innate. Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist, said it best in 1864, at the height of the Civil War: “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered.”
The same goes for the Declaration of Independence. Did it promote equality? The answer is clearly yes. If you’re unsure, here’s a test. What if government were limited to laws that solely secured natural rights? Would that promote or suppress equality? That depends on what one deems to be equality. Natural law would dictate that a black man is free to pursue, say, the role of NFL commissioner. It also suggests, though, that those responsible for selecting the commissioner would be afforded the same freedom of action, and choice.
In an effort to rectify past wrongs, our culture has become obsessed with “diversity” and “inclusion.” Are these demands consistent with the virtue of equality? Any honest assessment of this forced diversity movement would find it lacking. Phrases like “It’s time for a woman president” or “We need more black coaches” are as antithetical to the goal of equality as John C. Calhoun’s argument that slavery was a “positive good” or the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Dred Scott case of 1857.
To the younger generation of Americans: You will inherit an undue burden. The new, unequal view of righting wrongs—best described as “justifiable inequality”—will change how you’re educated. This means that to get a full understanding of equality, and of human nature’s effect on it, you will likely have to study independently. Your studies will, no doubt, put heavy emphasis on slavery, Jim Crow, the treatment of Native Americans, unjust wars, gender inequalities, and countless other failures. You will almost certainly not be given insight into the world of the past; nor will you be told that the failures of the past are indictments of the choices of the men and women of that time—not of the principles that undergird our unique republic.
Without this perspective, one can’t help but have a skewed view of America. What Thomas Jefferson (its principal author) created in the Declaration is a document that would serve as the foundation for the greatest governing experiment in human history. Unfortunately, our country is at risk today because too many citizens know little, and appreciate less, of this history and its context.
Lastly, to my son: I cannot shield you from the world. You will, undoubtedly, be subjected to the noxious view of America described above—often with the inference that you have fewer opportunities because of your race. This is a lie. I will do everything in my power to ensure that you understand the significance of freedom, liberty, and equality. If I do my job well, when you read this, you will know that you were blessed to be born in America; and being black should strengthen, not weaken this belief. I hope that you will defend the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and stand up to maintain our republic. It needs you.