This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on July 4, 2015.
As the sun starts to set on another Independence Day, the question arises whether the American experiment in self-government is going down with it.
A recent piece in Vox.com questions why we celebrate the Fourth and goes on to lament the fact that the former colonies secured their independence from Great Britain. Why? “The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority,” while delaying freedom for slaves and doing nothing to help women and Native Americans.
It’s an old story, really. Over a hundred years ago, historian Charles Beard wrote that the Constitution was written by wealthy men to protect their economic interests. Although Beard later recanted significant portions of his thesis, it has been treated subsequently by academics largely as gospel.
The results of such misinterpretations of the Founding were predictable: Ill-informed pieces like Vox’s are only the latest example.
To see this, consider for a moment what better-informed minds have had to say about the meaning and enduring importance of the Declaration, beginning with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In his 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., King spoke these immortal words: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Reverend King knew better than those at Vox why we celebrate the Fourth. In the first place, we do not celebrate the Fourth because it is the day we declared independence from Great Britain. That was accomplished through an act of the Continental Congress two days prior, on July 2nd.
We celebrate July 4th, rather than July 2nd, because the Fourth is the day we adopted the Declaration of Independence. And, again contrary to Vox, King understood that the Declaration did not justify giving “more political power to America’s white male minority.” It condemned it, providing future Americans, as King attests, the moral compass by which to bring our practices better into line with the principle of human equality, which stands as the moral foundation of the Declaration and thus as the standard by which we have judged ourselves ever since.
Vox’s view that our Declaration-justified War of Independence aimed only to make the “white male minority” here equal with its former brethren in the Mother Country was itself the position taken in one of the most infamous decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history, Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), in which Chief Justice Roger Taney, like Vox, woefully misread the Founders’ intentions. Taney’s majority opinion asserts that, under the Declaration and Constitution, blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The Supreme Court had spoken. But the last word would belong to Lincoln. The Dred Scott ruling drew him out of political retirement; it breathed life into the new, anti-slavery, Republican party, of which he would become its first successful candidate for president. In his June 1857 speech on the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln explained the conflict between the Declaration’s foundational principle of human equality and the practice of slavery at the time. The Founders, he argued, “did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon.” Instead, the Declaration “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated. . . . “ He adds, “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use.”
Here, says Lincoln, is the deepest reason we celebrate July Fourth, and the Reverend King would make history with his “future use” of the Declaration’s promise more than a century later.
A month prior to Lincoln’s address, famed abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, delivered a magisterial speech on the Dred Scott decision, in which he rejected Taney’s (and Vox’s) view that, because “the Constitution comes down to us from a slaveholding period and a slaveholding people,” we are “bound to suppose” that blacks are “debarred forever from all participation in the benefit of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Instead, he demonstrates that a “plain reading” of both the Declaration and Constitution shows them to include blacks in “in their beneficent range.” Like Lincoln at the time and the Reverend King afterward, Douglass knew that the Declaration’s principles included rather than excluded the black race. The force of Douglass’s appeal consisted in exhorting white America to live up to its Founding principles.
But today, Vox—and, to be fair, not only Vox, but many in the Academy—teach the historically and morally ill-founded view that equality can come only through rejecting our racist Founding principles. Famed Lincoln analyst, the late Harry V. Jaffa, saw this coming as far back as 1959. In the introduction to his Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa observed that then (as today), universities had become “the decisive source of the ruling opinions on our country.” On this basis, he predicted that that the “utopianism and intolerance” taught then (and now) in our universities “would surely spell the end of constitutional democracy.”
Jaffa has proved prescient. In the course of his critique of the Dred Scottdecision,delivered several days before July Fourth, 1857, Lincoln remarked to his audience, “I suppose you will celebrate” the Fourth, “and will even go so far as to read the Declaration.” That line, delivered by a politician today, might draw only laughter. Most Americans stopped reading the Declaration a long time ago. If we were exposed to it in our K-12 education, the odds are that we failed to receive the deeper treatment it deserves in college-level study. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, roughly two out of every three college students graduate without having taken even one course in American government. Why? Because so few universities today require it, believing, with Vox, that their understanding of justice has evolved beyond the Founders’.
Lincoln foresaw the disastrous effects that would follow the failure to teach our fundamental principles of justice to succeeding generations. In fact, at the tender age of 29, in his speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in 1838, he saw disregard for the Declaration and Constitution already growing as a result of the dying out of the Founding generation. The only antidote to such degeneration, he argued, was to teach “reverence for the Constitution” in “schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling-books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”
Who can doubt Lincoln’s premise that a self-governing people can maintain its liberties only so long as its citizens practice reverence for the principles that justify self-government? And who can doubt Lincoln, Douglass, and King’s demonstrations that the foundation of these principles is the Declaration’s argument for human equality?
If we are to prevent night from falling soon on the American experiment, we should take seriously Lincoln’s urging and restore required study of the Declaration and Constitution at all levels of schooling. In doing so, we would come again to understand why the Declaration has been looked to by nations across the globe as an inspiration for their own efforts at reform. We would come again to understand why Lincoln declared the nation built on the Declaration’s principles to be “the last, best hope of earth.” We could come again to understand why the future of our democracy depends on properly celebrating the Fourth of July.